Lee Flaherty, Chicago Marathon promoter, Rolls Royces, himself, dead at 90

Runners had a bad reputation in the mid-1970s. At least among older guard guards like Chicago Park District Supt. Ed Kelly, who was not about to allow thousands of joggers to rush through his parks.

“He apparently clung to the earlier view of runners as undesirables, a quasi-criminal element,” writes Andrew Suozzo in his story “The Chicago Marathon.”

So, fans of creating a marathon in Chicago turned to Lee Flaherty, whose Flair Communications did the marketing work for the city.

“Flaherty was politically connected and managed to get Mayor Daley interested in the marathon,” Suozzo writes.

Then Daley died, and Daley’s successor, Michael Bilandic, a racer himself, was even more interested. He gave the green light to the marathon, first organized in 1977.

Flaherty, who championed the Chicago Marathon in its early years, even paying for it himself for the first two years, until he found a corporate sponsor, died March 23 at his home in Flair Tower, the building he helped develop on Erie Street. He was 90 years old.

Lee Flaherty (left) running in 1983 with Greg Meyer, who won the Chicago Marathon in 1982 and the Boston Marathon twice.

Jim Frost/Sun-Times File

He was a pioneer in the redevelopment of River North, opening Flair Communications on Erie Street in 1964 when the neighborhood was downtrodden.

He also helped create, in 1984, the World’s Largest Block Party, an outdoor festival that encouraged young people to linger downtown after work at a time when you could fire a cannon down State Street at 6 p.m. hours without touching anyone. The street party also provided a lifeline to Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at a time when parish membership had dwindled.

“When I arrived in 1983, Lee was an integral part of St. Pat’s,” Reverend Jack Wall said. “When I became a pastor and we started the block party, Lee really put his arms around him and helped us.”

Flaherty claimed the block party was his idea, just as he insisted he was the founder of the Chicago Marathon, although organizing the 26.2-mile race was not a particularly innovative idea: Detroit, Duluth, Minnesota and San Francisco have all started marathons. the same year as Chicago.

Again, Flaherty was a professional promoter, and that included polishing his own mythos.

The Chicago Marathon, River North and the world’s largest block party have all been valuable contributions to the city. But, as someone who has known Lee Flaherty for almost 25 years, those accomplishments have always seemed secondary to the overall splendor of the man: an exuberant well living, Old school “Mad Men” style sharpie who rolled around town in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, had epic martini lunches and was always deeply tanned and impeccably dressed in his French cuffs and bespoke Pucci suits.

I met Lee in 1997.

“I think you’re a genius!” he said then. “You will work for me!”

And I did, freelancing, briefly, writing for the first Brown & Williamson Tobacco website. So to some I might be considered too compromised to rate the man’s life. But I knew him, which also puts me in a position to tell his story without taking a beating.

Although chronicling his life begs the classic publicity conundrum: are you reading this because it is intrinsically worth writing? Or because someone is doing a favor for a friend? You will have to decide for yourself.

Lee Flaherty was a good friend to have.

“If he was a friend of yours, he was the best friend you ever had,” said Peter Rogers, former CEO of Brach’s and Nabisco Brands. “Flamboyant, extravagant, he was so full of life. But don’t put yourself on the wrong side. If he doesn’t like you, be careful.

The Great Francis Flaherty was born in Indianola, Nebraska – a drugstore owner he worked for at age 13 found the name awkward and nicknamed him “Lee”.

His father John abandoned the family. His mother Frances, a seamstress, moved Lee and his older brothers Dennis and Russell to Richmond, California, across the bay from San Francisco, where he grew up.

Flaherty enlisted in the army in 1951, a paratrooper with the 11th Airborne. He spent three years in the service, then attended the University of California, Berkeley on the GI Bill, graduating in 1957.

After college, Flaherty came to Chicago to work for the Schmidt Lithograph Company’s marketing group. Back then, printers created marketing materials directly for product manufacturers – point-of-sale displays, flyers, and more.

After five years, Flaherty decided to go into business, producing the creative part of this business – essentially serving as an advertising agency for direct mail, contests and in-store branding.

Her mother offered to mortgage her house to help her. He told her not to. But she did it anyway, sending him a check for $8,500 and earning a lifetime of gratitude that impressed her friends.

“He was a man who loved his mother more than any man I ever knew,” Rogers said.

Lee Flaherty outside Flair House in 2007. He used the house at 214 W. Erie St. to promote his marketing business, often giving away bookends, Christmas decorations and other items representing the building as gifts to friends and customers.

Lee Flaherty outside Flair House in 2007. He used the house at 214 W. Erie St. to promote his marketing business, often giving away bookends, Christmas decorations and other items representing the building as gifts to friends and customers.

Thomas Delany Jr./Sun-Times

Flaherty rented a dilapidated brownstone at 214 W. Erie St. for $85 a month and, on November 1, 1964 – Flaherty had a head for dates – he opened Flair Merchandising, “Flair” having been his nickname in the Army .

Flair started with three clients: Morton Salt, Accent International and Alberto-Culver. In 1966, the business brought in over a million dollars. The following year, revenues doubled.

He also did marketing for Rolls Royce and received a car as payment. Eventually he received three, the newest usually parked outside Flair House.

At one point, Flair had over 100 employees, with offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York.

Flaherty was followed to Chicago by Sharron Lee Gleason, a pin-up model named ‘Miss San Francisco’, whom he met when she graced a boat pulled by lifelong friend Jack LaLanne while he was swimming under the Golden Gate Bridge, a birthday tradition for the famous fitness guru. Gleason was 17. Flaherty was 25. She followed him to Chicago. They married in 1960 and had one daughter, Shannon. The couple divorced in 1966 but remained close.

“Mom lived a block from him,” said Shannon Flaherty Micheletto, 59. “She just loved him. Her name was Mrs. Flaherty as if they had never divorced.

Flaherty has been athletic all his life.

“He was always Mr. Fit. He weighed 168 pounds,” his daughter said. “I have pictures of him fresh out of the army, all oiled up, and a picture of him 40 or 50 years later. His body is exactly the same. It’s crazy.”

In the mid-1970s, he started running.

“The ultimate work ethic is running; that’s why I love it,” Flaherty told the Sun-Times in 1977.

He first ran the Boston Marathon in honor of America’s bicentennial in 1976. The Chicago version he helped create was first called “The Mayor Daley Marathon.” Designed as a unique tribute to the late mayor, it took place on September 25, 1977.

But then came a second year, and complaints poured in about what one reviewer called “The Lee Flaherty Marathon” – double the entry fee, later start time (more spectators that way , reasoned Flaherty) and the general marketing and questionable quality of the merchandise. .

“It becomes like the Indy 500,” complained parks attorney Erma Tranter.

In 1979 Flaherty invited Beatrice Foods to become the exclusive sponsor, and the race became America’s Marathon Chicago.

As the marathon grew, its sponsorship shifting from Beatrice at LaSalle Bank to Bank of America, Flaherty grew increasingly bitter about the race, feeling he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved. .

“He wanted his marathon back,” his daughter said. “We all wanted him to stop, and he couldn’t. He was so obsessed with getting it back. He burned a lot of bridges.

“He couldn’t get over it, they didn’t give him the marathon,” Rogers said. “He thought it was one of his great contributions to the city of Chicago. Towards the end, he got very bitter about it.

“Some of the demons in his life took over,” Wall said. “It was very sad to see.”

Over the past decade, Flaherty has mellowed, having closed his business and helped develop the Flair Tower at 222 W. Erie St., which features 150 works from his collection in its hallways on each of its 26 floors.

Of the honors won by Flaherty and Flair Communications, he was proudest of being made a Knight of Malta in 1984 and receiving the Horatio Alger Prize in 1979.

In 2010, the Illinois Landmarks Commission honored Flaherty as a “Chicago Legend”, alongside Ernie Banks and Harold Ramis.

“He adopted Chicago,” Rogers said. “He was a great Chicago promoter. He really loved Chicago and did everything he could for the city.

“He was very unique, a one-of-a-kind guy,” Wall said. “He really was. He came from quite humble backgrounds and certainly made his mark. His dream for the Chicago Marathon was definitely ahead of his time.

“He liked to party, he liked to take people out,” said Micheletto, who is survived by his daughters Carley and Mia. “He said to me, ‘I have no regrets. I’ve had such a great life, I’ve been so blessed. I don’t want anyone to be sad that I’m gone. I really got it all. .

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