BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
With roots in Iowa and part of her heart in Aspen at her beloved Aspen Music Festival and School, Kay Bucksbaum questioned whether she should be featured in a magazine called Classic Chicago.
But how could Chicago, where Bucksbaum and her late husband, Matthew, moved in 2000 and began immediately to give back with gusto, not embrace the couple? Though Matthew, who began with three small family-owned grocery stores in Marshalltown, Iowa, and became the second largest owner of shopping malls in the country, died in 2013, Bucksbaum’s work continues with a nation-wide impact.
A purposeful philanthropist passionate about photography, public radio, patient-centered care, and the outdoors, Bucksbaum has artfully woven a life that many cities and states across the country feel its impact. She joined the board of trustees of Grinnell College before the age of 40 and went on to become its first female board chair.
Adjectives like playful and athletic don’t always come to mind when you describe someone who is proudly 90, but on a recent visit to her home, high over the city, Bucksbaum spoke of choosing her Chicago residences because of the lap pool design. A former state swimming champion, she had just returned from a 700-mile bike trip across Europe when she met Matthew on a blind date.
Lightheartedness always plays across her face and is reflected in her home. There one can find fanciful furniture created by contemporary craftsman Silas Kopf, preeminent in the field of marquetry and also known for his whimsical monkeys and other jungle creatures.
Bucksbaum, born Carolyn Swartz, and Matthew, who founded his first shopping center in Cedar Rapids 1954, loved building a collection of surrealist artists, contemporary paintings, whimsical crafts, and African masks, displaying them all in the sleek modern setting of their apartment with a 360-degree view of the city.
She shares, “I have been interested in art all my life. In Des Moines, my uncle collected works of the impressionists. In 1947 the Des Moines Art Museum went up less than a block from my house. At first I was sad that they had taken away a great hill for sledding and a beautiful view from our backyard. My mother recovered from her sadness by taking advantage of the classes offered there. It is a wonderful museum.”
“I have served on the board of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, which has a strong emphasis on crafts,” she continues. “Both of my parents enjoyed working with their hands, and my brother became an accomplished wood-turner. Several pieces he gave me have an honored place in my home. I enjoyed needlework and turned that hobby into a the first-ever benefit for the local symphony orchestra, a nationally recognized needlework exhibition.”
Kay is a member of the Photography Committee at the Art Institute among other involvements there. She provides scholarships for Chi Arts High School students to attend classes at the Anderson Ranch in Aspen, which offers workshops in wood turning, papermaking, photography print making, painting, and other arts.
Photographer and close friend Robin Wylly McCown said recently: “I have known Kay for many years. I was introduced to her through her son, John, and daughter-in-law, Jackie. I have such deep admiration and respect for Kay’s consummate and academic approach to philanthropy. It is inspiring. Her total respect and appreciation for all artists and her deep love for craftsmanship, in music and the visual arts, is palpable.”
Bucksbaum’s explanations of how her interests grew would delight anyone. Take public radio: “It all goes back to the seventh grade when everyone was listening to pop music on the radio station of Iowa State University. I remember that they played “Mairesey doats and doesey dotes and liddlelambsey divay” and other very popular things, and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I listened so that I, too, could be in the know. When my husband and I moved to Des Moines, the Department of Adult Education was in charge of Public Television, and I got a job as a producer doing evening programs. We would do maybe eight programs for two months all at once. I not only had to get ideas but also the on-air resources.”
Journalism and the League of Women Voters were other early passions. “The Des Moines Register wrote I was the first woman editor of the Grinnell College student weekly newspaper. We put it out Friday morning, and I remember I stayed up all Thursday night every week, first working with my staff putting out the paper and then getting back to my dorm at about 1 a.m. to do my studying.”
She added, “My family was very civic-minded, though not wealthy enough to be philanthropists. At an early age I saw that my parents demonstrated a real responsibility to the community. They were very interested in government and the welfare of Des Moines where I grew up. I joined the League of Women Voters at about 19 or 20 while I was at Grinnell, and my roommate was its president. I have never given up my membership.”
The Bucksbaums love of Aspen began on their first wedding anniversary in August: “It has been an almost 70-year love affair. We decided to celebrate our first anniversary in Colorado. My aunt, whom I had visited for several summers, owned peach orchards in Palisades and Matthew, who worked for a grocery store in Iowa, needed to go there to pick up a freight car load of her peaches.
“We rode an Aspen ski lift and during that trip I told Matthew that I wanted to start going skiing. It was August 1953, and I think there was one paved road in Aspen and not that many skiers. That summer we heard a concert there as well as the sound of music as students practiced outdoors and wanted to know more about the Music Festival. We rented there for five winters and then built our first home in downtown Aspen.”
Kay shared her father’s love for photography since she was a little girl, and found Aspen the perfect place to pursue it, photographing its landscapes and flowers.
“I remember when my father allowed me to use a frame from the very first colored film in his camera when I was about 12. I photographed the red oak tree in our back yard at the height of its color, and captured the glorious light coming through it,” she remembers. “I visited my family home about three years ago and walked down what had been my family’s driveway but sadly the beautiful red oak was no longer there.”
“I have always adored time outdoors,” she says. “I loved swimming and entered my first swim meet in Grand Junction, Colorado. Rather than joining a team, I just signed up and did it.”
For many years the both Matthew and Bucksbaum held leadership posts on the Aspen Music Festival Board. Thanks to their generosity, the new campus, which houses the Music School in the summer, and the Aspen Country Day School for the rest of the year, opened in 2014. The school is home to over 650 music students, among the best in the world, taught by some of the most well-respected teachers in the field.
The family’s love of Aspen, a place where Kay and Matthew’s children, Ann and John, and now their children, ski with their parents, extends to year-round support. “John wanted to find ways for people who can’t afford all the expenses to be able to excel in winter sports. Through the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, he and his wife, Jackie, have organized closets of used clothing and ski equipment and provide ski lift tickets.”
One of the family’s most important joint projects is the Bucksbaum Institute for Clinical Excellence at the University of Chicago, established in 2011, which works to improve the relationship and communication between patient and doctor.
She explains, “At its heart is patient-centered care. The Institute works with medical students, junior faculty, and senior clinicians in three-year programs. We have been able to show a real clinical improvement in patient outcomes far beyond our earlier visions. Our partner has been Dr. Mark Siegler, who serves as its executive director. Jackie and John hosted the first dinner where we began to talk about how to influence the climate of medicine today. Working with one’s children is immensely pleasing. My daughter-in-law, Jackie, always can find ways to do more and do it better.”
Another project that gives Bucksbaum great joy is Ann’s project, Planet Word, a product of her time as a grade school teacher. The language arts museum to open in 2020 in Washington, DC. is fittingly located within a historic school building, where, on its roof, Alexander Graham Bell first tested one of his inventions. Its many interactive activities are designed to enhance the necessity and love of reading, writing, and speaking.
As with all the projects to which Bucksbaum commits, better communication occurs and magic happens.