Remembering Rocky Wirtz, University Trustee and Friend to the School of Communication
The School of Communication community is saddened to learn of the passing of W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz (C75), chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks, Northwestern University Trustee, and a generous supporter of our School and Northwestern at large.
Wirtz died on Tuesday, July 25. He was 70 years old.
“Rocky has been a transformative force in our community,” says School of Communication Dean E. Patrick Johnson. “His support of, belief in, and attention to our performing and media arts initiatives are the reason we continually rank alongside the best programs in the world. And beyond his generosity, he was simply wonderful to be around. Always kind and ever smiling, Rocky led with his heart and was unfailingly humble and gracious. He will be sorely missed.”
With gifts to the School nearing the $13 million mark, Wirtz and his wife Marilyn are its most significant donors to date. Their support has helped build the School's global reputation as an arts powerhouse and afforded countless opportunities for students to achieve excellence in acting, directing, playwriting, management, choreography, and so much more. His gifts have underwritten expansive renovations to the Evanston campus theatrical complex that now bears the name of his grandmother, a 1924 alum, The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts; funded the Wirtz Visiting Artist program for student and faculty enrichment; established the W. Rockwell Wirtz Professorship; and made possible the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for Performing and Media Arts in Chicago, a striking performance, gathering, and media-making space that opened in 2021 in Abbott Hall on the downtown campus.
“My grandmother Virginia loved the School of Communication and the University,” Wirtz said at the Wirtz Center dedication event in 2017. “In a small way, it’s a great honor that her name will be associated with this great institution.”
Rocky Wirtz was the president of Wirtz Corporation, one of the largest family-owned businesses in the United States; chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that has won three Stanley Cup championships under his direction; cochairman of Breakthru Beverage Group, a leading national distributor of the world’s top luxury and premium wine, spirits, and beer brands; and cochairman of Chicago’s United Center. He oversaw commercial and residential real estate companies as well as an insurance agency and banks in Illinois and Florida. A University trustee, he was also a valued member of the School of Communication’s National Advisory Council (now the Board of Advisors).
Wirtz attended Boston University for two years and then with the encouragement of his grandmother transferred to Northwestern, where he majored in communication studies and joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. He also played club rugby.
In an interview conducted in May by Dean Johnson, Wirtz relayed vivid memories of classes taken with communication studies professor emeritus Irv Rein and the projects and finals required. Wirtz lived in Foster Walker, graduated early, and soon after moved to New York to work in the liquor business and launch his legendary career.
“(At Northwestern) you had to learn to write, and you had to learn to communicate,” he said. “It prepared me that way. You learn to get along with people.”
Wirtz is survived by his wife Marilyn; children Danny, Kendall, and Hillary; stepdaughter Elizabeth; and six grandchildren.