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Lee Flaherty

Marketing Giant | 76 | Gold Coast

August 7, 2007

Flaherty is the founder of the Chicago Marathon and Old St. Pat's World's Largest Block Party.

It used to be a very personal business. The advertising agencies worked very closely with their clients. The agencies were always traditionally much, much smaller than the client. Now, with four big conglomerates . . . it gets to be kind of lopsided. ... It wasn't supposed to be that way. It was supposed to be a personal service business. ... I don't believe in those conglomerates.

TV? Talk about something that's over-served. You've got 500 or 800 cable networks today out there -- and the major networks. You've got so many messages. Who's going to see all of that or hear all of that?

I talked to my mom [in 1964], and she asked, "How are you doing?"... I said, "I'm going to start my own business." She asked when. I said, "Well, I don't have any money, but I'm going to save some money." She said, "Well, I have some money." My mother had been a seamstress all of her life . . . and she said, "I have the house paid for." My mother was 58 at the time, the only thing she had was that home. She had a lot of confidence in me.

I look back, I was 32 years old, and she mortgaged her house and gave me $8,500. And I thought about this little, ugly green fatigued building [Flair House, at 214 W. Erie in River North]. ... We rented, for $85 a month, the third floor. And business was good, and I repaid my mother that first year. And for $20,000 I bought this house.

When we started here in 1964, it was tough to get anyone to come here. ... Everything changes, and the changes that have happened in River North are fabulous. I love it.

The guy next door [on Erie], I told him, "Your sidewalk is always broken. People come down and it's unsafe." I said, "Just cave in all the sidewalk, get some dirt and plant some trees." He said, "Yeah, yeah." ... Well, he never got around to it. ... So one Sunday after mass, with a suit and tie on, I took off my coat and took a 16-pound sledgehammer and . . . I caved that whole sidewalk in. ... I got a phone call from this guy, all livid. He said, "I know that was you." I said, "What do you mean you know that was me? It wasn't me." I said, "That stuff's been falling apart. Now go in there and do it right" ... The sidewalk, if you go out there, it's beautiful.

We all know that Arthur Rubloff named Michigan Avenue the Magnificent Mile. Arthur Rubloff was one of my role models. A wonderful, sweet, generous, terrific man.

I was at a big function with him, a mayor's breakfast or something. Everything was paid for. But when Arthur left, he left a big tip for the lady that had taken care of us. . . . I've never forgotten that. And so years later, after Arthur passed away, I was out at a big electronics show in Las Vegas. When it was all over I tipped the lady. She said, "Oh, you're so kind. Nobody does that. Can I ask your name?" I said, "Arthur Rubloff."

You could go on with stories all day long about great people you've met. I guess that's kind of what life is all about.

I ran the Boston Marathon in '76 and came back and said, "Chicago ought to have a marathon." And I put the whole plan together and I talked to 27 CEOs here, and I couldn't get anybody to believe in it.

First they said it will never get on the street, and if it does, it will never last. Being stubborn and knowing the idea would work, we, Flair [Communications Agency], underwrote it in 1977. It was a big success. It was the biggest startup of a marathon ever in America. We had 4,400-and-some-odd runners.

The entry fee, believe it or not, was three bucks. And some runners complained it cost too much.

If Chicago can pull off the best marathon in the world, then we can certainly handle the 2016 Olympics, right? No doubt about it.

I run four days a week. On Saturdays and Sundays, I run 7 miles. And I run 4½ on Tuesdays and Thursdays.