The heart and soul of Arlington: Dick Duchossois, dead at 100, remembered for 'his life passion'

  • The man who built Arlington Park as a palace in the horse racing world, Richard "Dick" Duchossois, died Friday in his Barrington Hills home at age 100.

      The man who built Arlington Park as a palace in the horse racing world, Richard "Dick" Duchossois, died Friday in his Barrington Hills home at age 100. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Richard Duchossois stands before tents to temporarily replace the grandstand after the devastating 1985 Arlington Park fire.

    Richard Duchossois stands before tents to temporarily replace the grandstand after the devastating 1985 Arlington Park fire. Daily Herald file photo, 1986

  • Richard Duchossois looked back with pride on Arlington Park reopening after the fire.

    Richard Duchossois looked back with pride on Arlington Park reopening after the fire. Daily Herald File photo, 2014

  • Chairman Dick Duchossois pounds the ceremonial golden spike to commemorate the new guardrail at The Arlington International Racecourse in May 1989. The grandstand was rebuilt and opened that June after a devastating fire four years earlier.

      Chairman Dick Duchossois pounds the ceremonial golden spike to commemorate the new guardrail at The Arlington International Racecourse in May 1989. The grandstand was rebuilt and opened that June after a devastating fire four years earlier. Daily Herald file photo

  • At 95, Arlington International Racecourse Chairman Dick Duchossois wasn't ready to retire. "On my 100th birthday, I'm going to hang it up," he said. He died Friday at age 100.

      At 95, Arlington International Racecourse Chairman Dick Duchossois wasn't ready to retire. "On my 100th birthday, I'm going to hang it up," he said. He died Friday at age 100. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer, 2017

 
 
Updated 1/28/2022 9:02 PM

For years, Dick Duchossois would arrive early to his office within the stately grandstand he rebuilt from the ashes at Arlington Park.

Impeccably dressed, the man affectionately known as "Mr. D" maintained the daily routine until his health declined and the pandemic largely kept him to his Barrington Hills home.

 

But even at age 95 -- five years ago -- the finish line was still in the distance.

"Well, I have a retirement program all planned out," Duchossois told the Daily Herald in 2017. "On my 100th birthday, I'm going to hang it up."

A decorated World War II hero, renowned businessman and philanthropist, Richard "Dick" L. Duchossois -- the heart and soul of Illinois' recently shuttered grand horse racing palace -- died peacefully late Friday morning at his home, his son Craig confirmed.

Until only recently, the centenarian could still be found at his home office desk with legal pad and pen in hand, planning his next business venture.

Craig says his father kept up the same hectic pace until his health slowed him down the past two years.

"He did as long as he could. He was embarrassed when we went over there. He said, 'Craig, it's terrible. I haven't been to my desk in a number of weeks and months.' I said, 'Listen, you have carried on your mission wonderfully well. There's nothing you need to do at your desk.' But that was his life passion."

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"He enjoyed the daily challenges that come with running a business," said the younger Duchossois, his father's longtime right-hand man in family business matters and executive chair of The Duchossois Group.

The elder Duchossois was chairman emeritus of Arlington Park, the Arlington Heights racetrack he and three business partners purchased from Gulf & Western in 1983. He bought them out in 1986 to assume full ownership, until a merger with Churchill Downs Inc. in 2000 that made him and his family the Louisville, Kentucky-based corporation's largest shareholders.

Duchossois' 100th birthday came 12 days after the likely final race at the local oval, and after Churchill announced a pending $197.2 million sale of the 326 acres to the Chicago Bears.

In his final interview with the Daily Herald last March, Duchossois said he had no regrets that Churchill had put Arlington up for sale and that the land was destined to be developed into something else. An emeritus director on the corporate board, Duchossois expressed support for the company's leadership.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's been explained to me, and I don't understand it, but I agree with it," he said, adding that he was briefed on the reasons for the sale and details.

Of all the many memories during his years at the racetrack, it was the "Miracle Million" that Duchossois always came back to.

In the wake of the spectacular all-day fire on July 31, 1985, that burned Arlington's grandstand and clubhouse, Duchossois led a massive effort to clean up the facility, erect temporary stands, allow fans on the infield and run the signature international horse race just a few weeks later.

He had a framed photograph of workers grooming the track in the shadow of the smoldering rubble with the caption "Quit? Hell NO!"

"It was still burning when I got there about 3 a.m., and two things came to mind right away," Duchossois said in 2015. "The first was we will rebuild as fast as we can. The second was we have to run the Million. It had to be done."

"Maybe it was a little bit of stupidity on my part to think we could do this," Duchossois laughed, "but it never dawned on me that we couldn't."

Four years later, a new six-story grandstand was completed. The transformation of Arlington into a family-friendly entertainment destination had begun, with Duchossois' emphasis on customer service, attention to detail and commitment to quality.

The devastating fire and daunting rebuild didn't haunt him.

"Bear in mind, I'm old. I had more and bigger battles in Europe, where I got used to being knocked around," Duchossois said last March.

A decorated commander of the 610th Tank Destroyer Battalion as a major under Gen. George Patton during World War II, Duchossois fought in five major European campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge and a sweeping Third Army drive across France. He was badly injured, but he returned to the battlefield after leaving a military hospital, ultimately earning two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

His son Craig said he took lessons learned in the military into the business world and personal life. "Don't expect what you didn't inspect" was a regular saying of his.

"He loved a good fight. He loved a good challenge," Craig said.

A fellow Army veteran of a different generation who was also a tank commander, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and Duchossois often shared stories about their military service. Hayes said Duchossois was proud to be a veteran, noting the time he hosted Medal of Honor winners at the racetrack.

The mayor recalled Duchossois' passion for Arlington Park. The track executive would walk through the grandstand with a big smile as he interacted with the public on Million Day, on Mother's Day and at other special events.

But the charismatic billionaire also was a stern task master, Hayes said, setting the standard for his employees so that the track would be showcased as a world-class facility.

"It was Mr. D who showed the commitment and loyalty not only to his employees, but also to the Arlington Heights community -- and not only rebuilding the facility after the fire, but building a first-class facility with a world-renowned reputation to attract people to our community and the Northwest suburban region," Hayes said. "It was his reputation and commitment that kept it going for so many years in the face of a changing horse racing industry.

"If not for him, I'm sure we'd have seen the closure of Arlington Park many years before it did."

Duchossois, born Oct. 7, 1921, in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago, persevered as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, financial success story and family man. When he returned from the war, he joined his first wife Beverly's family business, Thrall Car Manufacturing Co. He grew the business and acquired others, diversifying his portfolio with the purchase of Chamberlain Manufacturing Group, broadcast outlets and Arlington Park.

Amid Beverly's death from cancer in 1980, the family got involved in philanthropic efforts, donating to cancer research at the University of Chicago and leading to the establishment of the Duchossois Family Foundation.

Duchossois is survived by his wife, Mary Judith, whom he married in 2000, as well as three children, two stepchildren and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His son Bruce preceded him in death in 2014.

Due to COVID-19 guidelines, there will be no visitation, and the funeral and burial services will be for immediate family only.

• Daily Herald columnist Burt Constable contributed to this report.

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