Quintessential People

The Canning Bunch: Rita and John Canning


by Lisa Stamos | Photo: thomas balsamo

“Family.” Rita and John Canning look confidently at each other across their kitchen table, and without hesitation say it at the same time. When asked about where to begin the interview, little else seemed important.

“Family is of paramount importance,” John Canning said. “I have two boys, and one girl, and Rita has three boys who are older than my children.” The couple who formed a new family the second time around, with six kids in tow, knew that someday the boys might leave home. “We’re not going to have that,” John said. “The boys went to school elsewhere, but all came back to live in the area, all married, and we now have 10 grandchildren,” he said.

It was Rita’s idea to think about keeping the growing family of six children close to home, especially as they grew up to their own lives and careers. “We bought suites and season tickets to Chicago sports venues—Soldier Field, United Center, Wrigley Field, and Sox Park,” Rita said of her strategy to keep her five boys and a daughter engaged and busy with family events. “We took plenty of family trips including to Europe, and even rented a yacht for a Mediterranean cruise.

Rita and John made it a top priority from the beginning of their lives together to thoughtfully blend their newly formed family. “We celebrated everyone’s birthday together, shared every holiday, and took family vacations,” Rita said. For both, the marriage was their second.

“At the time we became a family, our children were ages 3 through 13,” John said. “We insisted everyone be at every dinner, that all attend, even each other’s exes,” he says of their remarkable focus on family togetherness. As a new couple, they resolved parenting issues early on. “Your kids, your rules,” Rita says. “We didn’t impose our own rules on the other’s children, especially because there were age differences.”

Sports wasn’t only a way to keep the family together. It was how Rita and John found each other. John was a little league coach and Rita was on the women’s board of the local little league when they met at a joint board meeting. They had seen each other—he by the handball courts, and she at the racquetball courts—at the Buehler YMCA. When the league’s board invited the women’s board to a meeting, the two finally met. They dated for several years before getting married.

“When we married and were raising our kids, we weren’t like single parents because the children’s other parents were involved, and we included them in family activities,” Rita said. Today, the Canning’s three generations stick together, and Rita and John’s children have befriended each other’s step-siblings with their own family activities. “The greatest satisfaction I feel is when I look at our kids, that they’re such good parents, amazing moms and dads,” Rita says. “It makes me feel like we did something right.”

When John’s youngest child Beth was 5, a family friend asked her how many brothers she had. She said ‘well that depends’. The child asked if she meant blood brothers, and responded that she has five brothers, but none are blood brothers. John’s two sons, her immediate brothers are adopted, and her three other brothers are step-brothers. The Cannings are truly a blended family and their parent’s commitment to keep the family together is perhaps their greatest success.

John Canning grew up in the small town of Bayport, Long Island. The small population in town and at school provided the chance for John to start in all sports. He remembers watching his father, the town doctor, work very long hours, making house calls, and being at the school.

“He was well-respected, a prominent man,” John says. “He was also an artist, a Renaissance man who painted and sculpted. He was also a sailor. We had a cabin cruiser. He was a big deal to me.”

John picked up his dad’s work ethic early on, taking a job at a local grocery store where he worked 70-hour weeks for one dollar an hour. “I thought that pay was pretty good. I put myself through law school in those days.”

Unthinkable tragedy struck John and his family while he was in college. He lost his brother who died in a car accident. That same week he lost his brother, he also lost his mom.

After earning his undergraduate degree at Denison University, John went to Duke to get a law degree. His first job was at Chicago’s First National Bank. “I worked at the bank as a lawyer for 11 years, and took over a venture group in 1980 within the bank. In 1992, we spun out to form Madison Dearborn Partners. The bank knew we wanted to do it, and were so supportive they actually invested 100 million in the fund we formed,” John said. He’s been there ever since.

He says the “deal business” is good and that every transaction is different, and it’s a lot of fun even in tough times, when they pull together. He says his strongest skill set is picking good people. “We would never hire ourselves,” he says, “we always hire people who are smarter.” The other key to his success is professing a motto of mutual respect and mutual trust. “Partnerships are fragile structures,” he says.

Rita grew up in Maywood, Ill., and then headed North with her parents who spent a few years running a fishing resort. At the one-room schoolhouse she attended there, staff had to clear the playground of bears before recess. Her job at the resort was to raise nightcrawlers for the guests who fished. The family moved to Westchester after a few years Up North.

She attended U of I for a business degree, and went to work for Allstate. She married and had three children. Rita was divorced in 1985, and John and Rita married in 1990.

Rita loves the country, and John is a city guy. Together, they formed a charitable foundation to pursue their individual passions. John has changed lives through his work with inner-city education and the children it benefits. Rita’s passion is helping women and children escape domestic violence and never having to face it again. By both being involved in their own charitable interests, they could be supportive of each other’s active schedules. Their charitable work at times is full-time, and they are hands-on leaders with the people they help.

“Giving is a selfish act, and there is personal reinforcement for doing it,” John says. “We want to see the success stories. It’s joyful to see real outcomes.”

Today, while very active on top boards and in leadership positions, the couple is now in “the animal phase” of giving. An animal care center in Woodstock, Young at Heart, cares for older dogs and cats, even ones that are terminally ill. John and Rita were touched when learning about the effort, especially after losing their beloved black lab, Smokey. “We always wanted to build an animal shelter, but didn’t have the time,” Rita said. The opportunity presented itself, and they are donating funds to help make the shelter a reality. It will be called “Smokey’s Haven.”

Rita and John have worked tirelessly to raise their blended family, one that’s healthy, caring, and successful. And for more than 20 years, the extraordinarily generous couple has also provided life-changing, and life-saving resources to others in need, for their chance at success in life, too.

Here are some words that others shared about Rita and John Canning.

Rebecca Darr, Director of WINGS

Rita is the Board Chair of WINGS and John is the wind beneath our wings. I met Rita in 1998 after moving to the area. She changed my life when she hired me to run WINGS and since then, we have changed the lives of many women and children fleeing from domestic violence. With Rita’s leadership and with John’s fundraising, WINGS opened the first domestic violence shelter in the Northwest Suburbs in 2005. This year, we opened the first new domestic violence shelter in the City of Chicago in more than a decade. Their support has stopped the cycle of violence. The children who are escaping with their mothers are never going back to abuse because they have a path forward. Rita and John have made these dreams come true.

John and Rita give from the heart to make life better for all who are vulnerable whether it is people or animals who are suffering. They are two of the most caring individuals one will ever meet giving to make an impact. I am blessed to have them in my life and grateful for their desire to make this world a better place.

Joshua D. Hale, CEO Big Shoulders Fund

I first met Rita and John Canning nearly 17 years ago when I worked at an inner-city high school. We called them our “angels.” When a student would need a little help to close the financial gap for their tuition, Rita and John would help. I am now the President and CEO of Big Shoulders Fund and know that over time they have helped thousands of children in need, and still continue to do so. Even more, they know most of the children and meet with them regularly. This is personal for them. I consider Rita and John to be two of the finest people I know. They are mentors and exemplar for the way they live their lives. But, more than anything, they are great friends, family.

Rita and John’s generosity is unparalleled. Certainly one could measure this in the amount of their support. I think a better way is to consider the manner in which they share with and invest in others. It is selfless, heartfelt, and kind. Often we see people doing things when the spotlight is on. One would find a range of generous acts in the wake of Rita and John that none of us ever will know about. That is the way they are built. Doing good for others is something very real for them and they don’t do it for show. It is a great lesson for me and, I know, for many others too.

Dean M. Harrison, President and CEO, Northwestern Memorial HealthCare

Rita and John Canning’s commitment to Northwestern Medicine extends for over two decades. The combination of their leadership and philanthropy is rare. John has served in NM governance since 1991. Over the last 25 years, John has served in numerous governance capacities and currently serves as the Chair of the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Board of Directors. Together they have supported the development of our new hospital and never miss supporting our annual campaign. We are most grateful to have Rita and John as part of the Northwestern Medicine family.

Rita and John make you feel special regardless of whether you are joining them for a family, sporting, civic, or business event. They are both engaging, genuine, and authentic. One of the memorable events I have had the privilege to attend with the Cannings was a dinner honoring John. The focus for the evening was supposed to be John, but in typical Canning style, he turned the table on the event, and using his quick wit and good sense of humor, honored (or what some might say ‘roasted’) others in the room, thus deflecting the attention from his many accomplishments. It was classic Canning—maintain a low-profile image while making a disproportionately large impact in the community. While the Cannings generally keep their personal life private, there is one topic they love to talk about, their endless love for dogs and their ongoing support of pet rescue shelters.

John McCarter, Chair, Board of Regents Smithsonian Institution and former president, board chair, and long-time trustee of the Field Museum of Natural History

The partnership between Rita and John is extraordinary. When John says, ‘Subject to Rita’s approval,’ he really means it! And the same for Rita. The extent of their philanthropy is known to only a few due to the breadth of their generosity and their low key, oftentimes anonymous giving. The multiplier effect when they do announce their involvement is powerful. Witness the annual Big Shoulders Dinner last year in honor of Monsignor Ken Velo and this year a financial commitment in honor of Josh Hale. Both records in Chicago for a single night event. Rita and John are models of citizenship. Whether separately or together, their impact is profound.

David Mosena, President and CEO of Museum of Science and Industry

I have worked with John for many years and most recently, he served as Board Chair at MSI (2013-2016). Rita and John are terrific friends to MSI. Their warm and genuine commitment to our city and region is obvious in the people they care for so deeply. I cannot say enough about their sense of responsibility, their endless energy, and their fabulous sense of humor. They go all out for the organizations they support, and their enthusiasm for helping others seems limitless.

But, if I had to sum up what makes John and Rita so special, it is their love of family which drives their generosity to others. Anyone who has had the privilege of knowing John and Rita quickly realizes that their love for each other and their family is reflected in their approach to life and their giving spirit. And they make everyone smile. Make that, laugh. Hard.

To prove my point, here is a quote from one of the Canning/Podjasek grandchildren when asked by Santa what he wanted for Christmas: “I want to spend more time with my cousins and grandparents.” That says it all.

James O’Connor, Co-Chair Big Shoulders

John is one of the most focused people I have ever known. When he determines to do something, the job gets done. Wherever he has been involved, he has been a leader—whether it is serving as Chairman of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chairman of The Field Museum, Chairman of The Economic Club, or Chairman of the Federal Reserve. John is a tower of strength in helping children attend and succeed in Chicago’s Catholic inner-city school program, known as Big Shoulders. He is like the cream that always rises to the top. And he causes people to join him and bring the same level of commitment that he has to whatever activity he is involved in. He is truly one-of-a-kind.

Rita Canning is a person who is passionately committed to assisting women who are the victims of domestic violence. She helped build the first safe house in Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs and has raised millions to establish other transitional housing for abused women and their children. She is a “whirling dervish” in her support of WINGS (Women In Need Growing Stronger). She and John also provide magnificent scholarship support to Harper College to be directed to women with histories of domestic violence. The Cannings, quite candidly, are as good as it gets. Few people in Chicago have made a greater impact on the philanthropic scene than John and Rita. They simply never come up short in their efforts to help others in need.

Nancy Robb, Former Superintendent of Township High School District 211

Rita and I have been on the Buehler YMCA Advisory Board for over 10 years. I have also been on the WINGS Leadership Board with Rita, and I
followed Rita as an elected member of the Board of Trustees at Harper College when she did not run for re-election.

Rita and John are an unassuming couple whose philanthropic endeavors make the world a better place for hundreds of people (esp. women). This is possible because they are a passionate, hard-working, and extremely generous couple. The following programs have been significantly improved due to their efforts. The Harper College Women’s Program is a fabulous support system for women who are looking for opportunities to improve their life situation and discover potential career pathways. The WINGS Program is unparalleled in assisting battered women and their children find a safe haven and gather the strength to leave an abusive situation. The 100 percent success rate of women not returning to an abusive relationship is evidence of the success of this program.

Rita and John are visionaries who identify a problem or need and then inspire others to join the cause and work together to make the initial dream a reality. Some people are dreamers. Rita and John are the doers that can help make the dreams a reality.

Laurie Stone, Past President, WINGS

I had the pleasure of welcoming Rita Canning to the Harper College Board of Trustees. It didn’t take long for me to learn how Rita approaches each and every one of her many commitments on behalf of the community. She became known for asking insightful questions that helped the board look beyond a single point of view. Whenever Rita was asked to assume an extra board responsibility, we knew she would bring passion, critical thinking, organization, and tenacity to the task. This is why she was a perfect choice to co-chair the search committee that identified Dr. Ken Ender as an outstanding candidate to lead Harper College.

It’s very hard to say “no” when Rita asks for your help. That’s probably because Rita and John have given so freely to so many. In 2010, Rita asked if I would consider joining the WINGS board as the board president. The next four years were action-packed and I was honored that Rita trusted me to impact the future of WINGS, the cause she holds closest to her heart.

Rev. Monsignor Kenneth Velo

I am an admirer and friend of Rita and John, and work as co-chair with John at Big Shoulders Fund. Rita and John are terrific as a couple and both give of themselves to charities; Rita to WINGS, John to Big Shoulders Fund. Both of them are involved in so many wonderful civic and charitable organizations beside. They leave a “trail of good” wherever they go. Perhaps more important, they are parents and grandparents of a blended family that mirrors their love for each other. I met them because they were not content in sitting and enjoying their home in Inverness, but wanted to give to others. John to education and Rita to those who experience domestic violence. Rita is warm and inclusive, John is smart and irreverent. They should be honored. It is an honor to know them.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.