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Ruth Elaine VanDemark, lawyer and Lutheran minister, dies at 68

Updated: July 26, 2012 6:15AM

The Rev. Ruth Elaine VanDemark was an accomplished appellate lawyer in Chicago who left her law career to become a Lutheran minister, eventually taking the helm at Wicker Park Lutheran Church.

Faced with a shrinking membership and a worn-down building, Rev. VanDemark launched a number of outreach programs to build the congregation, raise funds for restoration and connect the church to the community.

“She really worked tirelessly for the last 12 years to make sure this church was viable and ready to be a center of worship and a center of arts and culture for Wicker Park,” said Lyle Harlow, chairman of the building committee at the church.

On June 9, Rev. VanDemark died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of liver failure brought on by metastatic breast cancer, according to her husband, Leland Wilkinson. She was 68.

Prior to her work in ministry, Rev. VanDemark was a partner and head of the appellate department at a prestigious law firm, known then as Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon LLP, at a time when few Chicago law firms had women partners. She served as president of the Appellate Lawyers Association and argued numerous appeals before the Illinois Supreme Court.

“The decision that comes out of an appeal will most likely make law one way or another. It is a dignified practice, and she was one of the good ones,” said Cook County Circuit Court Judge Nancy Arnold. “It was pretty unusual to give all that up.”

“She was known as an excellent appellate advocate, very well-respected,” added Tim Eaton, a past president of Appellate Lawyers Association.

Before her law career, however, the South Dakota native, born May 16, 1944, had a background in theology. After graduating from Vassar College in 1966, she earned a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, where she met Wilkinson at an event at the start of the school year.

“She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen,” he said. “I gulped and walked over and said, ‘Can I get you a sherry?’”

Less than a year later, the couple wed. After having two kids, Rev. VanDemark at one point “said she wanted to go to law school — no, actually she announced, ‘I am going to law school,’” her husband said. In 1976, she graduated with honors from the University of Connecticut School of Law.

The family later moved to Evanston and Rev. VanDemark worked as an attorney until she felt a call in the late ’90s to return to theology. After studying at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Rev. VanDemark became the pastor of Wicker Park Lutheran Church and moved to the neighborhood.

At that time, the church building was in terrible shape. A group dedicated to helping religious organizations maintain their properties told her it was going to be impossible to fix, considering the small size of the congregation.

“The building was literally about to be condemned by the city,” Wilkinson said. “It has two stone towers that were about to fall to the ground. The congregation had no money to fix it. So she set to work.”

Rev. VanDemark reached out to community members and eventually raised enough money to replace the towers, install a new roof and restore the stained glass windows. Before she died, she bequeathed her retirement savings to the church to help finance the rest of the $1 million renovations.

As pastor, Rev. VanDemark also attracted a younger crowd and grew the congregation six-fold. (There are currently about 60 regular worshippers.) She opened up the church as a community center and often hosted art shows, concerts, festivals and other programs.

“She really wanted it to have a presence outside of Sunday worship services,” said Peder Jothen, a professor of religion at St. Olaf College and former member of the church. “It became a part of the neighborhood fabric every day.”

In addition to her husband, Rev. VanDemark is survived by her daughters, Amie Wilkinson and Caroline Wilkinson; brothers Robert VanDemark Jr. and Richard VanDemark; mother Bertie VanDemark; and grandchildren Beatrice and Felix Farb.

Services have been held.

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