First lady M.K. Pritzker celebrates with her husband, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, at an election night rally Nov. 8 at the Marriott Marquis Chicago marking the governor’s reelection over Republican Darren Bailey.
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file
It’s time to meet M.K. Pritzker.
In her first four years as Illinois’ first lady, Mary Kathryn (nee Muenster) Pritzker, 55, from Sioux Falls, S.D., was a rare news bite.
Now, on the eve of the second inaugural of her husband, the wife of Gov. J.B. Pritzker — billionaire scion of the Hyatt Hotel dynasty — agreed to sit down for an exclusive peek inside “M.K.’s world.”
It is a world of a schedule on steroids, the timetable of a social worker and socialite, a doyenne managing two homes, three farms, a governor’s mansion belonging to the state of Illinois, and a passion for criminal justice focused on women incarcerated in Illinois prisons.
“I’d like to think my husband and I have become partners in knowing everybody counts, especially fighting for the voiceless and the powerless,” says the first lady, who chuckles about “their vastly different backgrounds growing up.
“No one could have imagined this union,” she says. “J.B. and I came from two very different worlds, wound up working on the same floor of the Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., and met on a blind lunch date. The lunch cost J.B a total of $4.80.”
She has spent the past four years dealing with two teenagers in the midst of the COVID pandemic, curating a collection of Illinois art and historic furniture for the newly rebuilt governor’s mansion, reviving the state’s poet laureate and arts program and, without fanfare, visiting prisons to interview incarcerated women throughout Illinois.
“Decades ago, I met an entire family of women serving time at Cook County Jail,” she says. “The grandmother was serving time for murder. Her daughter and granddaughter were in serious criminal muck. Prison was their home. It was a nightmare.”
M.K., whose nickname was born during her college years, grew up in Nebraska and the South Dakota prairie. Her future husband grew up in a big-city environment in California.
“It’s probably why I have learned to love Springfield — its warmth, its size, like my Sioux Falls hometown. It’s very familiar territory to me. Rural. A feel of the west. Very low key.
“And I got to do the fun job of redecorating a newly restored house,” she says, having been educated in historic decorative arts and architecture and now writing a book on the governor’s mansion makeover, which is set for publication later this year.
“It was a cold, gray day when I walked into the governor’s mansion before the Inaugural. I was so nervous. I had a giant learning curve ahead of me.”
Photos of all 40 former Illinois first ladies — found in the attic and reframed by M.K. — now occupy prominent mansion wall space. Historic recipes have now been culled from first ladies’ old cookbooks. And Mary Todd Lincoln’s almond cake is now served for dessert at mansion dinners.
The current first lady says she learned “true skills” on the farm of her “Grandma Marce.”
“She taught me to sew, crochet, make chocolate cake, take care of animals like ‘retired’ horses and, as the church’s secretary who handled donations, she taught me bookkeeping. It’s served me well.
“I may have gotten in trouble ringing the church bells, but mornings of feeding the pigs, farm work and building forts out of twigs kept my brother and I busy.”
A farm has never been far from M.K.’s front door.
“My dad, Ted, grew up on a little farm in Nebraska, a land grant to my family during the Civil War,” she says. “I own it now.
“My dad was the first person in the family to go to college, where he met my mom, who eventually became a state senator. Dad served as chief of staff to South Dakota Gov. Richard Kneip, the next-to-last Democrat to serve as the state’s governor since 1978.”
Last year, M.K., an avatar for women’s health issues, was credited by Secretary of State Jesse White with helping push creation of a new, streamlined state ID program for prisoners approaching release, which is now managed by that office.
“They desperately need to find housing and jobs upon exit from prison,” she says. “Imagine not even being able to access your birth certificate or proof you ever paid a bill lost or misplaced while you were lost in the prison system.
“If you incarcerate a mother, you are also incarcerating her children. And 86% of women in state prison are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes.”
An equestrian and horse devotee, M.K. was given six miniature cows by her husband. “They are wonderful,” she said of her herd of six: Huey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Crouton, Peaches, Blondie and Alice, all at their farm in Wisconsin.
Surely, a whiff of wonder on a farm once owned by a beloved grandmother named Marcelene.
One last question before we finish the J.B. and M.K. alphabet: Is there really a ghost in the Springfield mansion?
Legend has it the wife of former Gov. Richard Yates walks the hall at night, scratching on doors, whispering woe.
During a big snowstorm last year, the governor’s senior staff crashed at the mansion overnight, doing puzzles, raiding the refrigerator and ghost-hunting with the Pritzkers in tow.
“In the midst of the ghost tour, one of us snapped a photo while joking about ‘ghostly pressure’ in one room,” Pritzker press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh says. “The photo came back with at least six or seven orbs glowing — little round balls of flash.
“Make of that what you want.”
Saturday birthdays: Quarterback Lamar Jackson, 26; actor Jeremy Renner, 52, and actor Nicolas Cage, 59. Sunday birthdays… North Korean President Kim Jong-un, 41, and former education secretary Betsy DeVos, 65.