Dawn Clark Netsch, the tiny, whip smart, political force of kindness and simply doing good across the political landscape of Illinois for six decades, died this morning from complications of ALS. She was 86.
And as news of her passing spread out across Chicago, it began to snow. Like some sort of consoling white blanket spread out across the city. A soft and crystal sparkling message touching anyone who looked up and thought, “here was a woman who mattered, here was a life so well lived, here was a person who came first, who got things done, just by being smart and kind. Here was a heart as big as the Illinois prairie in the snow.
As friend and Dean of Chicago Journalism Carol Marin reported, Netsch was honored with a lifetime achievement award by Planned Parenthood at the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. At that event, former presidential advisor David Axelrod read a letter from President Obama that said, “The unwavering grace and integrity (Netsch) has shown throughout decades of public service is an inspiration to us all. Dawn’s legacy will live forever in our hearts and the history books.” Axelrod added, “Her life was a series of firsts.”
The first woman elected to statewide office, Comptroller, in 1990. The first woman to run a serious race for governor. She lost to Jim Edgar. One of the first female law professors in the country. A State Representative for 18 years. She was an architect of the Illinois State Constitution. She recently served on a City Ethics Commission set up by Mayor Emanuel.
Netsch, one of the tiny number of politicians in Illinois over the course of my lifetime, who, when you say the word “Ethical” and then her name, literally anyone who pays attention would nod their head and say, “Yes. Of course.”
This woman was ethics in Illinois politics.
But it was ethics lived out in the context of a vibrant, wise cracking, laughing life. This was also a woman who loved the Chicago White Sox. Cigarette smoking, pool shooting, beer drinking, funny lady who shattered more glass ceilings than you could count.
Described in Marin’s piece by her nephew Andrew D. Kerr, as “Sight in stature, towering in intellect, and commanding in her presence,” I remember one startling moment of personal kindness. I was selling long distance phone service, trying to get big time government contracts trolling the halls of the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield. And I was doing it in exactly the way that never works. Possessing an abundance of nerve, but almost no real intelligence about how selling to someone in government actually happens, I was cold calling. Trudging from office to office. Getting rejected in person. Until I got to the Comptroller’s Office. I recognized the name. My Mom, who paid attention to things like women who make a difference in politics, spoke of Dawn Clark Netsch as someone who stood up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. And did it smartly. So it worked. But that’s all I knew.
I remember walking through the towering wooden doors , the banks of gatekeepers at desks getting ready to say “No” just like every other office.” But then, out of nowhere, Dawn Clark Netsch walked up, shook my hand and did something astounding. She listened to me.
As dumb as whatever my amateurish pitch was, she listened. And I remember her eyes. She was kind.
Flash forward many years. I owned a house in Lincoln Park, And one night, just as a soft winter snow began to blanket the city, as if to say “Good night,” I took my dog out for a walk. Strolling over to a lovely open area surrounding St. Michael’s Church, we were walking by the stunning house where Netsch lived with her husband, Walter Netsch, the acclaimed architect. Just at that moment, she opened her door, her two dogs all excited for their nightly walk. I stopped so the dogs could all check each other out, play together. “What a beautiful night!” said Dawn Clark Netsch,” that same kindness of intelligence sparkling in her eyes.
And off she walked, into the quiet winter night.
Dawn Clark Netsch.
We will remember you.