Leaders & Legacies: Dan and Ada Rice, philanthropists, business people, thoroughbred racehorse breeders

  • A 2018 drone photo highlights the landscape restorations around Danada House, including walking paths, labyrinths and gardens.

    A 2018 drone photo highlights the landscape restorations around Danada House, including walking paths, labyrinths and gardens. Daily Herald file photo

  • Ada and Dan Rice take a voyage on the British oceanliner RMS Queen Mary.

    Ada and Dan Rice take a voyage on the British oceanliner RMS Queen Mary. Courtesy of Friends of Danada

  • The nonprofit Friends of Danada manages the 19-room Danada House, which is open for receptions, meetings, parties, or catered functions.

    The nonprofit Friends of Danada manages the 19-room Danada House, which is open for receptions, meetings, parties, or catered functions. Courtesy of The Friends of Danada

  • The Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton offers beginner and advanced classes for ages 12 and up to learn horsemanship and riding skills.

    The Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton offers beginner and advanced classes for ages 12 and up to learn horsemanship and riding skills. Courtesy of The Friends of Danada

  • DuPage Foundation's Leaders & Legacy series

    DuPage Foundation's Leaders & Legacy series

 
 
Updated 7/15/2021 7:39 PM

Leaders & Legacies: Stories of Local Impact is an ongoing series brought to you in partnership by the Daily Herald and the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation. It highlights the inspiring stories of local individuals, families and businesses that have made or are making a lasting impact for our community through their generosity and leadership.

The series continues with the Wheaton couple Daniel F. Rice (1896--1975) and Ada L. Rice (1898--1977).

 

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Dan and Ada Rice lived a remarkable life. Their fortune was made from Dan's work as a successful commodities broker in the early 1900s, followed by Ada's distinguished run as the owner of Thoroughbred racehorses, including Lucky Debonair, the winner of the 1965 Kentucky Derby.

In 1965, Dan and Ada Rice's colt Lucky Debonair won the Kentucky Derby with famed jockey Bill Shoemaker and trainer Frank Catrone.
In 1965, Dan and Ada Rice's colt Lucky Debonair won the Kentucky Derby with famed jockey Bill Shoemaker and trainer Frank Catrone. - Courtesy of The Friends of Danada

Ada came to own her first Thoroughbred horses in 1943 after mentioning her interest to her husband. He bought her eight, seven of which won races during that first year alone. Horses raced by Ada under the name of the Ada L. Rice Racing Stables won 883 races and earned $8,771,000 between 1943 and 1974.

The Rices were known to throw lavish parties throughout the years at their country estate, which they named "Danada," a combination of their first names.

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Danada House, built in 1939, originally featured a swimming pool set among the trees and formal gardens.
Danada House, built in 1939, originally featured a swimming pool set among the trees and formal gardens. - Courtesy of the Friends of Danada

The home was built with entertainment in mind and included a large kitchen comparable to what may have been found in a commercial setting. Their private residence featured a wine cellar, a bar, and a billiard parlor in the basement.

Guests included many close friends, and among them were several famous people including Hollywood actor Don Ameche, comedian Jimmy Durante, and entertainer Liberace.

Liberace, center, stops to visit with his friends Dan Rice, left, and Ada Rice, second from right.
Liberace, center, stops to visit with his friends Dan Rice, left, and Ada Rice, second from right. - Courtesy of Friends of Danada
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Guests must have felt as if they were visiting a private resort given the beautiful grounds that included a swimming pool, something that was considered to be quite a luxury at the time.

The property also included a 26-stall Kentucky-style barn, a half-mile racing track, and an official starting gate. Horses were bred at a farm owned by Dan and Ada in Kentucky, which they also called Danada, and the horses were trained at the Danada estate in Wheaton. The Danada stable was considered first rate and was staffed with a veterinarian and an X-ray machine.

Horses trained at the Ada L. Rice Racing Stables won 883 races and earned $8,771,000 between 1943 and 1974.
Horses trained at the Ada L. Rice Racing Stables won 883 races and earned $8,771,000 between 1943 and 1974. - Courtesy of Friends of Danada

Ada Rice had talents beyond having a great eye for horses. She was a gifted artist and an accomplished skeet shooter. No doubt Ada's love of the sport is one reason that Danada also featured a skeet shooting range. Guests to Danada House can find an award-winning painting by Ada Rice along with the ribbons she won for the painting from the Surf Club Art League in Miami, Florida.

Most people who were close to the Rices are now gone, but Ginger Van Der Molen Johnson of Wheaton shared a story about her sister, Dr. Gail Van Der Molen, who had worked for the Rices during her freshman year at Wheaton College in the early 1960s.

According to Ginger, Gail had spotted a job posting on the college's work placement board for a local couple who were looking for a maid. Gail applied and was hired by Dan and Ada. The Rices would send a car to Gail's dorm once a week to drive her back to their home. Ginger recalled Gail saying that Dan and Ada were very kind and that her responsibilities at the house were fairly minimal. She also would be asked to make a sandwich for Dan from time to time.

It seemed to be an incredibly thoughtful way to help a college student earn a little money and Gail had nothing but fond memories of her time working for the Rices.

Dan and Ada established the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Foundation in 1949 to accomplish their philanthropy. The foundation continues on today with its permanent charitable endowment supporting many worthwhile causes favored by the Rices during their lives.

Dan and Ada were passionate about the prevention of child abuse, research into plant development and preservation, medical advancement, and animal conservation.

Several major gifts from their foundation also have supported well-known institutions in the Chicago area, including the Chicago History Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Lyric Opera House of Chicago, Chicago Botanic Garden, Children's Home & Aid, Brookfield Zoo, Field Museum, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and John G. Shedd Aquarium, among others.

Locally, the charitable legacy of Dan and Ada Rice can be found throughout DuPage County.

They donated the land for the Illinois Institute of Technology's Wheaton campus, which is known as the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Campus.

In October 1977, officials at Illinois Benedictine College dedicated the Dan and Ada Rice Center. Three decades later, the sports center saw a full-scale renovation.
In October 1977, officials at Illinois Benedictine College dedicated the Dan and Ada Rice Center. Three decades later, the sports center saw a full-scale renovation. - Courtesy of The Friends of Danada

They were instrumental in the creation of the Dan and Ada Rice Center (a sports complex) at Benedictine University in Lisle and were posthumously inducted into the university's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.

The Rices also donated the land for the Wheaton Park District Community Center and the Rice Pool & Water Park, benefiting tens of thousands of Wheaton residents and members from surrounding communities. Additionally, their support of The Morton Arboretum was honored with the naming of a hybrid tree, the "Danada Charm."

The waterslide at Rice Pool and Waterpark in Wheaton is a popular spot during the hot summer days in Wheaton.
The waterslide at Rice Pool and Waterpark in Wheaton is a popular spot during the hot summer days in Wheaton. - Daily Herald file photo, 2018

The crown jewel of Dan and Ada Rice's legacy in DuPage County is their former home and farm in Wheaton.

On Feb. 6, 1975, Dan Rice passed away at age 78 in Miami, where he was spending the winter. And a little over two years later, Ada died at age 78 on April 11, 1977 in Chicago. Both died without leaving a will and without providing any direction over what should become of their beloved country estate.

Without a will, there was a strong chance that the land would have been sold for commercial and residential development. However, thanks to the heroic efforts of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and a team of activists, 780 acres of the property were preserved for the good of all, and are now under the management of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and the Friends of Danada.

Visitors spy a new foal at Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton last summer. The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County maintains the grounds and the stables. Hiking trails are open to the general public during normal operating hours.
Visitors spy a new foal at Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton last summer. The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County maintains the grounds and the stables. Hiking trails are open to the general public during normal operating hours. - Rick West | Staff Photographer, July 2020

Attorney Steve Helm recalls representing the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County during that time. Helm spoke of the vision and leadership of Chuck Johnson, who was president of the Forest Preserve District at that time. Chuck was joined by Naperville attorney Carleton Nadelhoffer and local planner Joseph Abel as advocates for a "green belt" in DuPage County that would link a vast amount of open space along Butterfield Road. The Rice property had been on Johnson's radar for quite a while, but the timing of the acquisition became critical once Ada Rice passed away.

Backed by a strong group of activists who were organized by Dr. Douglas Mains under the "Save the Rice Farm" banner, the movement became a force to be reckoned with. Dan McQuaid, now a Naperville resident, was in his late teens at the time and recalls attending public hearings about the Rice property. He said the room was packed with pro-development lawyers from Chicago, such a stark contrast from the activists who actually lived in the area.

Mains' daughter, Sherry Mains Torppey, remembered her father's involvement and spoke of his love of nature and his interest in environmental causes including the preservation of the Rice farm. Mains' campaign brought together volunteers to stuff envelopes with information to put the word out about the importance of saving the Rice farm. He also encouraged the volunteers to go door to door to get signatures on petitions to support the cause. Volunteers were also given bumper stickers for their cars that said "Save the Rice Farm."

The support of those activists combined with the power of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County proved to be a winning combination. The effort paved the way for the preservation of the Rice property south of Butterfield Road as open space. The group became known as the Friends of Danada and Mains served as the first president of that group.

The Friends of Danada have had the good fortune of bringing together a devoted group of volunteers over the years, including John Cather, who joined the original movement to "Save the Rice Farm" in the late 1970s. He was one of the original members of the board of trustees, and his service to the group spanned 30 years. After his death in 2017, his memory is carried on through the "John Cather Volunteer Appreciation Award."

Don Nash also played a critical role in preserving the legacy of Dan and Ada Rice and the history of Danada. Nash, who passed away in June, served as the president of the Friends of Danada for a number of years.

The Rice home, now known as "Danada House," is managed by the Friends of Danada and Jill Ludvigsen serves as its executive director. The group continues to rely on volunteers to staff special projects, including manning the Model Farm and the Equestrian Center. Volunteers are also needed for the Fall Festival, Danada Nature Art & Photo Show, and to help decorate Danada House for the holidays.

For those interested in history, there are several opportunities to be of service, including participating in the History Committee, which manages the archives of Danada House. Research and writing opportunities are also available for those interested in sharing the legacy of Dan and Ada Rice. You can learn more about volunteer opportunities at Danada by visiting friendsofdanada.org or by contacting Jill Ludvigsen at jill@danadahouse.com.

The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Foundation, started in 1949, has continued the couple's legacy of charitable giving for more than 70 years.
The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Foundation, started in 1949, has continued the couple's legacy of charitable giving for more than 70 years. - Courtesy of Friends of Danada

Dan and Ada Rice would likely be happy to know that Danada House is a continuation of their spirit of hospitality and is often used as a venue for weddings and other special celebrations.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County maintains the grounds and the stables where riding lessons are available for a nominal fee. Hiking trails are also available to the general public during normal operating hours, which can be found at dupageforest.org.

"Lucky" is one word that could summarize the life of Dan and Ada Rice. Given their level of wealth, the world was their oyster. DuPage County is fortunate that the Rices chose to make our community their home and a focus of their lasting philanthropy.

• The Leaders & Legacies series is brought to you by the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation in partnership with the Daily Herald. Suggestions for future stories can be sent to Alice Wood, director of gift planning, at alice@dupagefoundation.org. Interested in learning more about how you can make an impact or create a legacy for your community and favorite causes? Visit www.dupagefoundation.org or call (630) 665-5556.

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