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Marion E. Simon looks back on a life of turning tragedy into triumph

MariE. Simstands front KidneyMobile which provides free screenings for hypertensidiabetes kidney disease.

Marion E. Simon stands in front of the KidneyMobile, which provides free screenings for hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease.

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Updated: April 18, 2013 8:38PM

I was born in 1918. I’m turning 95 this summer, which makes me nearly a century old. A milestone like this causes you to think back on your life — both the shining moments and the days you’d like to forget. The most important lesson I’d like to impart is the importance of philanthropic work, which I feel has truly been a gift to me — one that has enriched my life and always gave me the strength to continue forward in the face of several tragedies.

The first time that philanthropy changed my life was when I was a young girl. I started as a young dancer in Chicago, at a time when professional dancers performed on the stage between big screen movie showings. There were mishaps, but we were taught, “The show must go on.”

Every girl’s dream was to be a movie star, and I received an incredible offer to be in major Hollywood pictures. But my parents absolutely forbid it, and that was that.

I was devastated, my dream shattered. I didn’t know what I would do with my life. Fortunately, my father gave me the gift of optimism, and I was born with the power of perseverance. My fiance at the time was a “fly boy” in the U.S. Air Force, and I was worried he would have to go to war, so I joined the American Red Cross. We crocheted blankets, knitted big sweaters and packaged supplies to send overseas. I also drove military dignitaries around the city. I was a woman doing what I could to help our country.

That time of my life held great significance for my future. I married that “fly boy,” Bud, soon after, and we had two wonderful daughters. But in 1980, my husband died unexpectedly. His death left me grieving.

I knew I had to find something to fill my days and keep my mind away from sadness. I found that diversion yet again in charitable work. Citicorp wanted to fund an AIDS educational program for 11-year-olds, and I was asked for help. I visited magnet schools in Chicago to get permission to talk frankly about sex with students (think back 33 years and imagine my red cheeks), worked nonstop and found sponsorship to fund a $75,000 video. And the endeavor truly helped me through my grief.

In January 2005 came the biggest blow of my life. My first-born daughter Kathy’s life was cut short, and I couldn’t function. I really didn’t care about anything. I was irrevocably sad. Kathy had not been properly diagnosed with kidney disease. She was on a waiting list and eventually able to get a kidney transplant, but died several years later because she had no immune system.

I knew that this type of tragedy should not happen to any family. I realized that people often don’t know that they have kidney disease; many don’t even know they have hypertension. So I knew what I had to do. I contacted the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois and told them we needed to develop a vehicle that could travel to neighborhoods and events and test people for hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease. There was no such thing in the country, much less Chicago.

I worked on the funding to get the KidneyMobile designed and built, and the program now operates as a joint partnership with University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center. Since the November 2005 launch, the KidneyMobile has provided more than 30,000 free screenings. We follow those diagnosed with kidney disease, and they are treated by the Illinois Department of Health. Everyone is taken care of; no one is left to fend for themselves.

My search for funding for the KidneyMobile not only led to lifelong friendships, but yet again, the philanthropic nature of the work empowered me to heal, knowing we would help children and families for decades to come. This would become Kathy’s legacy.

Sadly, my youngest daughter, Toni, died one year later. I know she and Kathy are together in heaven. A memorial for my two daughters was constructed in a beautiful garden at Lincoln Park Zoo — our family’s happiest times had always included animals. As the oldest and longest board member of the zoo, I visit often.

I never thought I would be denied grandchildren, but today, I find ways to mentor young people and hope that my recently published memoir will offer life lessons for both young and old. My life brought me several landslides, but of one thing I am sure: My work with charities saved me.

May you find your purpose in life.

Read more about Marion Simon in her memoir, “The Show Must Go On: My Dance with Chicago,” available at

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