Navy Pier’s caretaker

Marilynn Kelly Gardner, Jour ’88, oversees Chicago’s top tourist destination

Marilynn Kelly Gardner stands at the helm of the top tourist attraction in the Midwest — entertaining 9 million visitors a year.

As president and CEO of Navy Pier Inc., Gardner’s role is part operations director, part landlord, part community partner and part tourism promoter.

“What I find most rewarding is knowing that people choose to spend their limited leisure time with us,” she says.

Gardner’s love affair with Navy Pier began in 1994 when she was hired as a public relations director. Approved by Chicago’s mayor and the governor of Illinois as general manager in 2006, the mother of three says balance is the key to managing her hectic schedule — a skill she learned as an undergraduate in Marquette’s Freshman Frontier Program.

“Understanding how to build and maintain relationships was central to our experience at Marquette,” she says. “Relationships were core to our education, social foundation and faith. That has translated into all areas of my life and certainly into my career.”

Gardner’s current priority is managing the venue’s 100th birthday in 2016.

“Marquette taught me to apply myself to all I do but to create balance in doing so,” she says. “We worked hard, relaxed well, practiced our faith and never let the little things get in the way of doing great work.”

Originally published in Marquette Magazine and reported by Lynn Sheka