Sam Zell, chairman of Equity Residential, Equity Group Investments, has died

CHICAGO (WLS) — Sam Zell, a Chicago real estate magnate who earned a multi-billion dollar fortune and reputation as a “grave dancer” for his ability to revive moribund properties has died of complications from a recent illness. He is 81 years old.

To the average Chicagoan, Zell is probably best known as the former owner of the Cubs, which was part of the Tribune Company when he took over in 2007.

But Zell apparently wasn't too keen on owning a baseball team. He immediately sold the Cubs.

“It allowed the Ricketts family to step in and take over, but it had a devastating effect on the Cubs and Tribune followers and the whole association,” said Fred Mitchell, retired Chicago Tribune sports writer.

Mitchell said that shortly after buying Tribune for more than $8 million, Zell lost about 4,000 jobs at the company.

“He has no background in journalism and is showing us through actions and words, salty words, that his intention is to maximize his profits at the expense of good journalism,” Mitchell said.

But outside of sports and journalism, Zell, the son of immigrant parents who fled Poland before World War II, is known as a self-made billionaire.

“People would call him an icon, a legend,” said Alby Gallun, of Crain's Chicago Business.

He built his fortune starting in college, buying distressed properties at low prices, repairing them, and selling them for a profit. He was a pioneer in bringing real estate investing to the public.

“A lot of people have holdings in real estate investment trusts, and Sam Zell is a big reason,” says Gallun.

One of his real estate companies, Equity Residential, is headquartered at 2 N. Riverside Plaza in the city center.

In a statement, their CEO said, “Sam's intellectual curiosity and insatiable passion for closing deals created some of the most dynamic companies in the public real estate industry. He was a gracious philanthropist and an incredible mentor and friend and will be missed by all.” who are lucky enough to be a part of his extraordinary world.”

Zell left his wife, Helen; her sister Julie Baskes and her husband, Roger Baskes; his sister Leah Zell; her three children, Kellie Zell and sons-in-law Scott Peppet, Matthew Zell, and JoAnn Zell; and nine grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.