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Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz, Northwestern alumnus and trustee, dies at 70

The Chicago Blackhawks Chairman and his family have supported Northwestern for decades
rocky wirtz
In 2014, Northwestern’s the Theatre and Interpretation Center was renamed the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, in recognition of a gift from Rocky and his wife, Marilyn.

Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz ’75, Northwestern University alumnus, life trustee and member of the School of Communication’s Board of Advisors, died Tuesday, July 25. He was 70.

A renowned figure at Northwestern and in Chicago, Wirtz was perhaps best known for his chairmanship of Wirtz Corporation and the Chicago Blackhawks. Under Wirtz’s leadership, the Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups, in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

“In my short time as president of Northwestern, Rocky Wirtz had become a good friend,” said President Michael Schill. “His warmth, his sense of humor, his wisdom, his generosity, his love for Northwestern University and the City of Chicago were palpable. I will miss him.” 

Wirtz earned his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern’s School of Communication in 1975. He joined the Northwestern University Board of Trustees as a national trustee in 2011, having previously served as an alumni trustee from 1982 to 1984. He was elected as a life trustee in 2023. Throughout We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, he was a member of the Campaign Steering Committee and the School of Communication’s Campaign committee. Wirtz served on the School of Communication’s Board of Advisors (formerly National Advisory Council) since 1986. He also served on the committees for both his 20th and 25th class reunions.

“Rocky was a civic champion for the City of Chicago, and Northwestern was privileged to have his engagement on our Board, in our theatre programs and in myriad other ways,” said Peter Barris, chair of the Board of Trustees. “Among all his contributions, his kindness and warmth as a person will reign in the minds of those of us who were lucky enough to know him.”

Wirtz Corporation, a private holding company with diversified business interests in real estate, banking, sports, entertainment and wholesale distribution, was founded in 1926 by Wirtz’s grandfather, the late Arthur Wirtz. Rocky Wirtz was named chairman of the company in 2007 following the death of his father, Bill. He became president and chairman of First Security Trust and Savings Bank in 1982 and was a director of First National Bank of South Miami by 1997. In addition, Wirtz Corporation co-owns the United Center, where both the Blackhawks and Chicago Bulls play.

“Rocky truly was a great man. We were far more than partners at the United Center. We were very close; he was a dear friend, and our trust, our bond, was unbreakable,” said Jerry Reinsdorf, a Northwestern life trustee. “He was deservedly proud, as well, when it came to his countless civic and charitable endeavors and the positive impact they made on so many. This is a loss for us all. My condolences go out to Marilyn, his children and grandchildren, and the entire Wirtz family.”

Wirtz joined his family’s business shortly after graduating from Northwestern, becoming vice president of Judge and Dolph (now Breakthru Beverage Group) by 1979 and president of the liquor distribution company by the mid-1990s. 

Wirtz’s strategic vision, commitment to investment and time-honored focus on running a value-driven business helped the company expand throughout the U.S. In 2016, Wirtz drove efforts to form a partnership with The Charmer Sunbelt Group, creating Breakthru Beverage Group, where he served as co-chairman. Recognizing his many contributions to the beverage industry, the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America honored Rocky with a Lifetime Leadership Award in 2014.

Wirtz was a member of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and chairman of the board of trustees of the Field Museum of Natural History. He also was a member of the board of directors of the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation.

Wirtz and his family have been generous supporters of Northwestern and the School of Communication for many decades. The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts is named for Rocky Wirtz’s late grandmother, Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz. A 1924 graduate of Northwestern, Virginia helped her alma mater raise the funds needed to build what was then the Theatre and Interpretation Center. In 2014, the center was renamed the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, in recognition of a gift from Rocky and his wife, Marilyn. The Wirtz Center produces, manages, funds and administers the School of Communication’s mainstage performances, helping fuel the success of Northwestern’s top-ranked programs in theatre, dance, music theatre and performance studies. The family made gifts to renovate the center in 2017 to improve the accessibility and function of existing spaces and to create new classroom, rehearsal and performance spaces.

Support from the Wirtz family has fueled the School of Communication’s high-profile collaborations with professional artists and regional theaters — including the American Music Theatre Project, which brings music theatre professionals and Northwestern students and faculty together to develop new plays that have their first productions at the University. The Wirtz family has provided resources for the School of Communication’s arts programs for Chicago-area children, including Imagine U, and for its graduate programs in theatre directing and design.

The family’s gifts also endowed the W. Rockwell Wirtz Professorship in the School of Communication and made possible the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for Performing and Media Arts in Chicago, a striking performance, gathering and media-making space in Abbott Hall on Northwestern’s downtown campus. Dedicated in 2021, Wirtz Center Chicago positions Northwestern at the heart of the city’s vibrant theatre community.

Wirtz is survived by his wife, Marilyn; children Danny Wirtz, Hillary Wirtz, Kendall Murphy and Elizabeth Queen; and six grandchildren.