Column: ‘A one-of-a-kind person and mentor’: Jim Mabie’s legacy includes helping 3 young men dream big

·5 min read

There are lots of stories that could be told about Jim Mabie’s philanthropy in Chicago, tales of the boards he sat on, the millions he gave away, the long legacy he left when he died Saturday.

This is just one of those stories.

One day in September 2018, I opened my email and was surprised to see the name James Mabie in my inbox. Was this the person whose name I routinely heard on the radio when WBEZ announced the station was broadcasting from the Jim and Kay Mabie Performance Studio? The one whose name was on a gallery at the Old Town School of Folk Music? Whose name I’d seen attached to an eclectic array of Chicago arts and charitable organizations?

That James Mabie?

It was, and he was writing, he explained, because he’d read my column on three young college graduates who had just opened the Chicago Furniture Bank, an enterprise designed to provide lightly used furniture to people setting up their own homes after living in shelters or on the streets. After finding their phone number, he’d left a voicemail but received no reply. Could I help?

I assured him I’d let them know, and I did, assuring them they didn’t want to ignore a message from Jim Mabie.

But it wasn’t until this week, a few days after Mabie died, at the age of 85, surrounded by his family and listening to bluegrass music, that I learned everything that happened afterward.

“When we first met him,” recalls Griffin Amdur, “we were all nervous.”

Amdur co-founded the Chicago Furniture Bank in 2018 shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He and two friends — James McPhail and Andrew Witherspoon — had won a contest, run by their alma mater, to start a business dedicated to making the world better. Inspired by a furniture bank in Philadelphia, they built their proposal on the proposition that “every person should be able to sleep in a bed.” Visitors to the furniture bank would not only get good furniture, nearly free, but they’d get to pick it out themselves.

With their contest award money, the three guys moved to Chicago and into a Wicker Park apartment. They began soliciting furniture for their West Side warehouse. When I met them, during their third week in business, they had one truck, bought used. They hauled the furniture around themselves. And they had a goal: to help 300 households in a year.

The day Jim Mabie came to visit, they escorted him around the warehouse. He looked, listened, asked a few short questions. Later, he would email me that what they’d done in such a short time was remarkable. “They really are hands on with no pretense,” he wrote.

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To them he said: You need help hiring employees. They said yeah. You need another truck, he said. They said yeah.

“How does $100,000 sound?” he asked.

They were flabbergasted. “It was, like, crazy,” Amdur recalls.

And it was just the beginning.

As a young man himself, Mabie, who grew up in Winnetka, worked as a clothes buyer for Marshall Field’s, then wound up in the finance business, where he made his name and fortune. Through the decades, he used his influence for a wide range of causes. At 82, he started a boutique investment firm. It was a few months later that he met the guys at the Chicago Furniture Bank.

After their first meeting, Mabie kept in regular touch. Why serve just 300 families a year, he asked them? He said he’d read a study out of Toronto showing that 5,000 households a year needed the service they were offering.

Amdur and his partners listened. They expanded. And Mabie listened when they said they wanted a new location, something on the ground floor that didn’t involve carting furniture up and down in an elevator. By the time he died, he’d donated $850,000 to their project and recruited another $250,000 from friends.

“He helped the Furniture Bank think bigger than Andrew or James or myself ever thought,” Amdur says. “He allowed us to take more risks, grow faster, push it harder.”

This month, the Chicago Furniture Bank opened in a new space on the ground floor of a building in the Brighton Park neighborhood. The operation now has 33 employees, including truck drivers, movers, warehouse workers and administrators. It plans to supply furniture for 3,000 households this year. By 2024, they expect the number to be 5,000, which will make it the biggest furniture bank in the country.

Not long ago, Amdur and Witherspoon, the two of the original three partners who remain, wrote a testimonial for a retirement book assembled by Mabie’s colleagues. In it, they mentioned their failure to return his initial phone call.

“The three of us were petrified to admit to you that the Consumer Cellular Target flip phone (business line) fell out of one of our pockets while hauling a couch out of a basement,” they wrote. “It is hard to imagine trusting three college graduates that didn’t even have the competency to answer the phone.”

But Mabie did trust them, and they thanked him for believing in them and their cause: “You are truly a one-of-a-kind person and mentor.”

By August, when they hold the grand opening for the new warehouse, they plan to have the outdoor wall painted with the grateful words: Mabie Family Center.

mschmich@chicagotribune.com