Colonel Pritzker ’68 Returns to Parker

Military veteran, historian, businesswoman, investor, developer, philanthropist, transgender woman and Parker graduate Col. (IL) Jennifer Pritzker ’68 returned to the school recently to speak at Morning Ex about the importance of understanding the military’s role in a democratic society.

Pritzker believes all Americans should have a robust understanding of the military and participate in decisions about how we use our armed forces, since our military should be under civilian control. She also believes the military, as with the business world, must respect diversity to be able to draw on all the talent this nation has to offer and so all Americans can enjoy equal treatment and feel a sense of belonging, whether they choose military service or some other way to be of service to our country. These ideals are particularly important to her as a transgender woman and advocate for LGBT equality.

After Principal Frank provided the audience with some background on Col. Pritzker’s life and work, he welcomed her to the podium, where she shared the following:

Good morning, and thank you all so much for welcoming me back to my alma mater. I have many fond memories of being at Parker. I was in the class of 1968, the third quarter of the last century—still recent enough for me to recall how fortunate I was to be part of the Parker community. Many members of my family attended, taught or served on the board of Parker, off and on since 1933. This includes my father and his two brothers who attended, as well as my two sisters and my mother, who taught here and served on the board. I hope your experience here has been rewarding.

This morning I want to talk about the important role the military plays in preserving American democracy. Given that this school was founded by a Civil War infantry combat veteran, Colonel Francis W. Parker, I think this topic should be of great importance to you.

As citizens of a democracy, we the people have the awesome responsibility of governing ourselves. “Democracy” means “rule by the people,” and that means all of us must commit to participating in how the country is governed.

One of the most important aspects of self-rule is that the citizens decide how we use our military power. Our nation wouldn’t exist as it does if ordinary people hadn’t taken up arms to defend their freedoms, and this is why I founded a museum and library dedicated to the “citizen soldier.” That’s the idea that the service and sacrifice of ordinary people created this democracy, and so understanding the history—and shaping the future—of the military are key to sustaining our country.

The military is about defending our country from global threats, but it also plays a crucial role at home. It’s the country’s largest employer and its most respected institution. And it has the power to unify a diverse population at a time of great division. That’s what the military did after World War II when it took the lead in racial desegregation. And the military has always been involved in other key debates of our country: the role of women in combat, the question of the draft, the peace movement and policies about military service by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

These questions of diversity appear in every facet of American life, including the business and philanthropic worlds. And I can tell you from experience that creating any kind of successful organization requires embracing diversity. That’s the only way to access all the talent available, and it’s also a moral obligation, something I can speak about firsthand as a transgender woman.

So now I’d like to hear from you—your questions about my experiences and your thoughts about how you plan to use the awesome responsibility of the citizen soldier, whether that means serving in uniform, learning more about military history, engaging in activism or something else.

The stakes are high for our democracy. If a nation is really to be ruled by its people, then all its citizens must participate, and that means either contributing to its defense or studying it to shape it. To thrive, a democracy should be a place where all citizens have a purpose and a place and feel that they belong. With that, I invite your questions. Thank you.

Following her remarks, Col. Pritzker responded to several questions from students, including whether her extensive experience serving our country might ever prompt her to run for political office.

“I’ve considered running from political office,” she quipped. Additionally, in sharing how openly identifying as a transgender woman has changed her life, she replied simply, “pronouns and lots of paperwork.” Given her serious demeanor and quiet but deliberate delivery, Col. Pritzker’s casual sense of humor initially comes as a surprise. “She is smart, well-spoken and funny. She made us laugh,” shared Sophomore Eli Moog, who facilitated the question and answer portion of the MX. “I think it's important to have speakers like Col. Pritzker whose background and identity help bring a different perspective to our school.”

Although a confident, accomplished leader today, in a conversation after Morning Ex, Pritzker described herself as a student at Parker in the 60s saying, “I was not motivated and not always successful socially or academically. I was a history buff and hung out in the library, but I wasn’t motivated to go to college.” Much of that changed after a nine-month stay working on a Kibbutz in Israel at the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Watching Israeli men join that fight was all at once motivating. “I couldn’t join the Israeli military, so I signed up for the army as soon as I got back to the U.S.” That bold decision has since led to many more. Pritzker’s life as a Colonel, Parker alumna, parent, grandparent, Republican, philanthropist and transgender woman will certainly be a part of her legacy. “I want my businesses, my foundation, the museum and military library to live on long after I’m gone.”

In closing, Colonel Pritzker thanked everyone for their time and attention and encouraged them to visit the Pritzker Military Museum to learn more about the citizen soldier in the preservation of democracy.

Click here for photos from this visit.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.