Organizing the G-8 and NATO summits is like preparing for a hurricane. You can't entirely control the outcome, and any violence could be catastrophic for the city, the mayor and the president.
Leslie Fox, the first person selected to run the May 19-21 summits, left because of disagreements about policy and organizational structure after about a month. Mayoral adviser Michael Sacks then turned to Lori Healey, who had settled into the private sector after years with the Richard M. Daley administration.
Chicago Starbucks the next day. He didn't say why. Over coffee, he broached the subject of Healey running the summits, using the lines "You're clearly the best for the job," "we need you" and "please." He pressed hard.
Taking the job was sure to mean relentless media scrutiny, long hours and bureaucratic hassles. In some cities, international summits had sparked violent clashes with police. Why do it?
"This is an absolutely unprecedented event in the world, and I love the city, and you marry those two things together," Healey said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for six months' worth of planning and coordination, to make sure the citizens, the mayor and (President Barack Obama) are proud of Chicago."
Steve McClure, one of Healey's bosses when she worked at the Illinois commerce department, believes the challenge hooked her.
"She is kind of a one-in-a-million person who absolutely and totally thrives off of pressure," McClure said. "The bigger the challenge, the more she enjoys it. There aren't many people like that."
Sacks said Healey's only hesitation involved her boss, John Buck, who less than two years earlier had hired her as a principal at his commercial real estate development firm. Buck would need to grant Healey leave and continue paying her salary for her to run the host committee, an arm of the nonprofit economic development organization World Business Chicago.
"She came back directly to me and explained what they asked her to do," Buck said. "It floored her first, and 20 minutes later it floored me second. … We decided right there we were going to do this. So I called (Mayor Rahm Emanuel) and said something to the effect of, 'Thanks a lot for giving me the forewarning.' And he said, 'Join the club. You had about as much time as I did.'"
Healey has crossed from the public sector to the private sector three times, rising with each move. Before joining Buck's firm, she served as president of Chicago 2016, the city's Olympic bid committee.
Divorced with two adult children, Healey, 52, vowed the summits would be her last political appointment.
"I'm too old," she said in an early December interview at the host committee's Loop office. "Government is for young people. It's exhausting. … And I don't want to work till I'm 75 years old. I like what I'm doing at Buck."
Last week, I reminded Healey of that comment and asked again if this would be her last public role. She hesitated this time. "Based on what I know now, I mean it," she said.
Then she admitted she had told herself the same thing after Chicago's Olympic bid failed.
A life of perpetual motion
If Healey's career were plotted on a chart, it would be a 45-degree line shooting up. Her personal life would look more like a wave, with highs and lows that have molded a deeply private person and one suspicious and disdainful of the press.
"Not all the media is," she said before she paused and redirected her thought. "I find it hard to believe (reporters) have actually been to college sometimes."
Healey agreed to participate in this story with reluctance but later warmed to the idea of discussing her life and fielding questions about more than protests.
Healey was born in New Orleans. Her father was an Army orthopedic surgeon who commanded a M.A.S.H. unit in Vietnam and moved the family from base to base. Healey never lived in the same spot for more than four years.
Lori Healey, organizer of NATO/G-8 summits