J. Ira Harris, a primary benefactor of Michigan football and the university, died Monday, Feb. 21 according to family. He is pictured at the far right here at a 2016 lecturer at the UM Ford School of Public Policy. Photo provided by University of Michigan.University of Michigan
ANN ARBOR, MI – In a 2012 speech when receiving his honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Michigan, J. Ira Harris could not help but poke jokes at himself.
After heaps of praise from then-UM President Mary Sue Coleman for helping “transform” the school with his generous gifts over the years, he quipped: “You notice two things: I was not identified as a brain surgeon nor one of the sexiest men.”
After the laughter died down, he expressed his love for UM for helping guide a “lost 16-year-old kid from Brooklyn” to the man he eventually became. While the man became a top investment banker in Chicago, he is perhaps best known as the name that comes before Jim Harbaugh’s job title.
Harris died Monday, Feb. 21, at his home in Palm Beach, Florida of an apparent heart attack, according to family. He was 83.
A 1959 UM graduate in business administration, Harris built his wealth as a former senior partner at banking company Salomon Brothers and as chairman of J.I. Harris and Associates. During his long career, he developed a reputation for his expertise in mergers and acquisitions, said Henry Kaufman and Richard Schmeelk, the surviving senior partners of Salomon, said in a New York Times obituary.
“We, the remaining senior partners of Salomon Brothers, mourn the loss of a fellow member, they wrote. “He contributed importantly to the growth of the firm, especially to its rise to prominence in investment banking.”
One of the most prominent donations was a $10-million gift with his wife Nicki to the UM Athletic Department in 2014. This led to UM titling its head football coach as the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Head Football Coach. The gift also helped provide football players better academic and support facilities, UM officials said in a news release.
A staple of the Chicago financial world, Harris connected with Harbaugh during the latter’s time as quarterback for the Chicago Bears. Harbaugh said in a statement that he felt like a part of the Harris family.
“He was an influential friend, go-to advisor and known agent for myself and the Harbaugh family,” Harbaugh said. “I am a better person for knowing and being associated with Ira.”
A 2021 gift from Harris also provided resources to UM’s women’s sports programs, university officials said. UM Athletic Director Warde Manuel expressed sadness for the loss of a “tremendous friend.”
“Ira and Nicki have positively impacted Michigan Athletics and their local communities so much that it’s hard to put into words,” Manuel said in a statement.
That generosity extended past athletics, as various scholarships, endowed professorships and other support were given to other UM departments.
Harris, born Jay Ira Horowitz in New York City on April 13, 1938, changed his name after graduation. He made multiple return visits to UM, receiving the 2010 Outstanding Alumni Award from the Ross School of Business and the 2012 Doctor of Law degree. He also facilitated a lecture to UM Ford School students by former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker in 2016.
In the 2012 clip, he reflected on his lifelong love affair with UM.
“Only in America do people get the opportunities that I was given to be able to do things,” he said. “My family really loves giving back, and this is the greatest place in the world.
“All I can say is Go Blue,” he said at the end of his speech.
Besides his wife, Harris is survived by Harris is survived by their children, Bradley, Jacqueline and Jonathan; and six grandchildren.
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