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Chicago school teacher was an instant hit with Bernie Mac

Elizabeth Conlon

Elizabeth Conlon

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Updated: November 3, 2012 6:18AM



Elizabeth Conlon loved curling up with her animals, a good book and a hot “cuppa” tea. Gentle and soft-spoken, she still managed to inadvertently halt production of a Hollywood movie once, years ago, when she and actor Bernie Mac discovered their shared disdain for an administrator at their old Chicago public school.

It happened in 2003, when Ms. Conlon was visiting the New Orleans set of Mac’s film “Mr. 3000” with her son, Benjamin Nowicki, who works in the movies.

“I turned my back for maybe two minutes and turned back around, and there she was, leaning over the bar with Bernie Mac,” Ben Nowicki said. “Behind him was the entire cast and the crew — the director, the crew, the producer. And they were like, ‘Who is this woman, and why can’t we start shooting again?’ She’s literally under the lights [with Mac]. It was like they were doing a scene together.”

The crew didn’t dare interrupt. Mac was a star, and he was laughing and talking with Ms. Conlon as if they’d been friends forever.

It turned out Ms. Conlon had been a teacher at Mac’s old high school, Chicago Vocational. Her gracious, easy demeanor helped the two figure out they both held the same low opinion of a certain school administrator.

Ms. Conlon, 65, died July 20 after a brief illness, at her home on the Northwest Side, with her sons Ben and Matthew Nowicki at her side.

She grew up at 73rd and Yates in South Shore but lived all over the Chicago area at various times, including Belmont-Cragin, Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, Frankfort and Orland Park.

Even as a girl, “Liz always liked a little adventure,” said her brother, John.

Another brother, James, had a Cushman Eagle scooter that Ms. Conlon, then about 14, decided to take for a ride.

“She got on that motor scooter, and she turned it on . . . it just ran away from her,” said John Conlon. “I can still see her in my mind’s eye, flying through the air.”

Luckily, she wasn’t hurt.

During a trip to Europe in her 20s, Ms. Conlon and her sister, Mary Emmerick, hitchhiked to Paris. They had a drink at the bar at the Ritz.

“Liz says to me, ‘Look over there, to the right,’ ” Emmerick said.

It was Janet Flanner, an expatriate correspondent for The New Yorker who had been one of the first to write about Hitler’s twisted charisma and danger.

Ms. Conlon earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago and her doctorate from the University of Chicago. She taught in Chicago’s public schools for 20 years.

At Metro High School, she helped kids prepare for the history fair.

“She was wonderful. She pushed to help the kids think in ways of presenting their material more creatively,” said a former colleague, Paula Baron.

Books were her escape and adventure.

Once, when her son Ben had burned through his allowance buying books, she was a little cross at first.

“And then she came back,” he recalled, “and she said, ‘No, no, whatever the cost, it’s never a waste of money to buy books.”

“She’d give us these books that were really interesting and exotic and intellectual and at the same time get us an Evel Knievel wind-up dragster,” Matt Nowicki said. “She was very much about enjoying life when you can.”

She introduced Matt and Ben to cinema classics at Facets Multimedia and the old Parkway moviehouse. They were young boys when she took them to see “Gandhi” and Charlie Chaplin’s silent films. They even saw Vincent Price’s horror-camp mashup “The Tingler,” which director William Castle made extra scary by attaching buzzers to theater seats.

Their mother took them all over the city, from women’s lib marches to trips to Marshall Field’s.

“She wouldn’t condescend,” said Ben Nowicki. “She treated us with respect and intelligence, even when we were very young. That inspired Matt and I to seek a life of the mind.”

Matt is a professional guitar maker and Ben is an art director.

A tireless animal rescuer, Ms. Conlon once stood up to a belligerent drunk who tried to make off with a stray dog she’d been trying to catch. The little pug mix was running down Milwaukee Avenue when a man staggered out of a bar and grabbed him. Ms. Conlon refused to leave until he turned over the dog. She named him Sammy. He and her shepherd mix, Layla, now live in North Carolina with her son Matt. When she allowed Matt to take them, her family knew the end was near.

She was the family fulcrum; the one who had everybody’s phone number, said her brother, Patrick. She knew when someone needed a boost, and she’d encourage other relatives to give them a call and cheer them up, said John Conlon.

Ms. Conlon is also survived by her granddaughters, Robynne and Esme Nowicki.

Her family will distribute her beloved Christmas ornaments when they gather for Thanksgiving. She didn’t want a funeral. Instead, she asked for her ashes to be scattered at a place where the daffodils come up in the spring.



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