By Elizabeth Station
Photo by Jason Smith
“ We really do care about the University of Chicago,” says Joan Feitler of the couple’s involvement. “For each of us from our own vantage point, it’s been tremendously important.”
“We both used the same word—overwhelmed,” says Joan Feitler, AM’55, describing how she and her husband, Robert Feitler, Lab’45, X’50, felt when they heard they would receive the University of Chicago Medal, which recognizes distinguished service of the highest order to the University.
The Feitlers accepted the award at Chicago Convenes, a November 2 gathering held to recognize the University’s most generous philanthropic partners. At the event, participants engaged in Chicago-style discussion with some of the institution’s leading scholars, followed by a celebratory dinner in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. The University community honored the newest members of the Harper Society Founders Circle, a group of alumni, friends, and organizations that have made cumulative gifts to UChicago of $1 million or more. The evening culminated with President Robert J. Zimmer presenting the University Medal to Bob and Joan Feitler.
The Feitlers, in turn, have been tremendously important to the University, with a record of service and philanthropy that is broad and deep. Their generosity and leadership have benefited Chicago in innumerable ways—from strengthening the arts and social sciences, to supporting the careers of young scholars, to investing in the Laboratory Schools and the graduate divisions.
Strong relationships have deep roots, and both Joan and Bob trace their ties to the University over many decades. Bob grew up in the Kenwood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Both of his parents attended the University, and they enrolled their son at the Laboratory Schools in 1935 as a first grader. During the Hutchins era, when Lab students could enter the College after two years of high school, Bob began his undergraduate studies at the University. In 1948 he left Chicago to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and earned a law degree at Harvard. He went on to a successful business career, first at Esquire magazine and later as president of the Weyco Group Inc., a men’s footwear manufacturer, from 1964 until his retirement in 1996.
At Lab, Bob says he wasn’t a top student. “I won very few academic honors, but I did win a prize in seventh grade for excellence in manual training. That’s the woodworking shop,” he laughs. Still, he credits his early education for helping him “look at the whole picture” in business and for giving him a broad range of interests that included the arts.
Joan lived on the city’s North Side and attended Frances W. Parker School, which, like Lab, educates students in the progressive tradition. She grew up in a close-knit family that shared meals together—grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—three nights a week. After graduating from Goucher College in Maryland, she returned home to pursue a master’s degree in sociology at the University, an experience she calls “a highlight of my life.” While writing her thesis on the city’s women lawyers in 1954, she was hired as a research analyst at Social Research Inc., cofounded by Chicago professor Burleigh Gardner to apply social science techniques to solving business problems.
Even before Bob and Joan met at a Christmas party in 1955, their families were friendly. The couple married in 1957 and raised four children: Pamela Hoehn-Saric, MST’81; Robert Jr.; Richard; and Dana. After a stint in New York City, they lived for 32 years in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin—near Weyco’s Milwaukee headquarters—but moved back to Chicago in the early 1990s. Joan has balanced family life with a 20-year career as an independent educational consultant and active community volunteer.
Originally published on November 7, 2011.