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Church deacon dies after robber knocks her down stairs at L stop

Sally Katona-King had a servant’s heart.

She turned her life filled with tragic events — the failure of her first marriage, the murder of her second husband, the death of her 2-year-old nephew in a fire — into a mission to help others.

A single mother of three, Katona-King was a dedicated church deacon. She led a volunteer effort to feed the homeless in Logan Square at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, where she became a member in 1985 after the congregation showed her so much compassion during her nephew’s funeral. She loved the church and lived in a small apartment next door.

On Monday, Katona-King’s life ended tragically at a CTA train station.

At about 4:20 p.m., the 68-year-old who always took public transportation was on her way home from work when a robber ripped an iPhone away from another woman at the Fullerton L stop. As the man fled — pushing his way through the rush hour crowd — he shoved Katona-King down a flight of metal stairs.

Witnesses said Katona-King had a huge gash on the right side of her forehead. The robbery victim held Katona-King until paramedics arrived, family members said.

On Tuesday morning, Katona-King died from her injuries.

“It’s horrible,” Katona-King’s son David King said. “Over a f------- iPhone? That’s horrible.”

Police had sketchy details about the robber, who ran east on Fullerton from the station. In a police alert, detectives described the offender as a black man wearing a black hat, blue jeans and black jacket with the letters “WS” on the back.

Police said there were many “willing witnesses” cooperating with investigators, Katona-King’s family said. On Tuesday afternoon, officers passed out fliers on the L platform and asked commuters if they had witnessed the attack that led to Katona-King’s death.

No arrests had been made late Tuesday.

In Logan Square Tuesday night, folks remembered Katona-King as a kind, strong woman who knew what it was like to struggle in life and never gave up.

“She was always helping out people,” said her daughter Kimberly Katona, who remembered how her mother once let a woman involved in a bitter divorce stay with them for a few months. “She took people in. She didn’t have much money but she also didn’t’ have an easy life. She understood.”

That explains the special connections she had with homeless folks who would come to the church for breakfast of scrambled eggs and pancakes on Sundays.

“She was very concerned. She had a way of talking to them that they understood. Maybe some of the rest of us would get upset. But she had a way of having a conversation with them,” Katona-King’s friend and neighbor Leona Kerchner said. “They’re going to miss her, too. It’s going to be different this Sunday.”

By the time she was 29 years old, Katona-King was already divorced, widowed and raising three children on her own.

For 20 years, the lifelong North Sider worked as a cook and manager at Frank’s Pizzeria. She practically raised her children there. Her son, David King, remembers helping wait on customers when he was just eight years old. She never owned a car and loved taking the CTA. Even when offered a ride, Katona-King would politely decline and take the bus, said her pastor, the Rev. Eardley Mendis.

For the past several years, Katona-King worked at the Evangelical Lutheran Metropolitan Chicago Synod as a receptionist for Bishop Wayne Miller.

The people who knew her best praised Katona-King for her selflessness.

“She never expected anything in return,” Miller said. “It’s just the way decent people treat one another. It was very natural for her to do that.”

But Katona-King was also a proud Chicagoan — and never a pushover. She was tough.

“She would speak her mind,” her son said. “If you were out of line. If you were a young kid [on the bus] and an old lady got on the bus, she’d say [to the kid], ‘Get up. Have some respect. If your mother was here she’d tell you to get up.’”

People could learn from his mother, King said.

“Everybody should be the way my mom was. It’s just common courtesy,” he said. “If you had respect for one other in this world you wouldn’t have to steal an iPhone.”

In addition to her son and daughter, Katona-King is survived by another daughter, Eileen Katona; a brother, Michael Lawrence; sisters Nancy Lawrence and Mary Ellen Draper, and two grandchildren. Services were pending.

Contributing: Stefano Esposito

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