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Merrilee Crain launched March of Dimes fundraiser, supported other charities

Obit phoMerrilee Crain.

Obit photo of Merrilee Crain.

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Updated: December 6, 2012 6:18AM

Merrilee Patterson Crain, a secretary and board member of Crain Communications, a bon vivant who started Chicago’s Gourmet Gala for the March of Dimes, has died.

“Merrilee was a person who took great joy in life,” her husband, Rance Crain, the President of Crain Communications, said Sunday.

Mrs. Crain died on Nov. 2, a few weeks shy of her 70th birthday, of complications from cancer.

Publicly, Mrs. Crain was known for the time she gave to Chicago-area charities. In the 1980s, she was asked by the March of Dimes to begin the Gourmet Gala. For years, the fund-raiser paired up chefs and celebrities — such as Mike Ditka, Ernie Banks and Mayor Harold Washington — to cook together and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for children with birth defects.

She served as a board member for the Hubbard Street Dance Company and the Goodman Theatre, and she ran the benefit and auction for the Lake Forest Symphony. After moving to Florida, Mrs. Crain joined the board of the Orlando Museum of Art.

She and her family traveled extensively, and when their two daughters were young, she pulled them out of school to see Australia and South Africa, according to her daughter, Cindi Crain. She and her husband went to international conventions together, the best of which were in China, she told her New Trier High school classmates in 2010.

Yet her favorite place may have been her family’s cottage on Cape Cod, and her proudest accomplishment a 2008 self-published book about it: “The Cottage.”

Her grandparents had bought the house in 1919 for $4,025 on Lake Elizabeth in Craigville, Mass.

Her own oil painting of the home graced the cover of the book about “the history of the cottage as her whole life and her family’s lives flowed through the cottage,” Crain said.

Crain chose a paragraph from it he felt embodied the vital connection she’d felt with the house:

“Even though my parents spent only two weeks during the summer at the cottage, it has shaped and influenced our lives way beyond the time we spent there. Nowhere was my father happier than when he was puttering around the cottage and its environs. The friends we made there were as steadfast as at our home in Illinois.”

Born in Providence, R.I., the former Merrilee Patterson moved to Illinois when her father worked for American Airlines, her husband said. She grew up in Winnetka, graduating from New Trier High School in 1960. She attended the University of Illinois, graduated from the Katherine Gibbs School in Boston, then took a job in the engineering department of IBM in Evanston.

In 1965, her best friend had been dating Rance Crain’s brother, Keith, and suggested setting Merrilee up with Rance.

“She said to my brother, ‘Well, you know, Rance is a writer, he’s kind of quiet, and Merrilee is kind of quiet’ ­— That’s when she was quiet, in those days back in 1965 — ‘I think they would get along,’ ” Crain said.

He wanted to see her again the very next day, so they played cards at the Sunset Ridge Country Club.

Eight months later, the couple married.

“I just felt comfortable with her, more comfortable than anyone else I’d ever been with,” her husband said. “I didn’t have to be anybody that I wasn’t.

“She was a kind person, and that means a lot to me.”

They raised their two daughters in Lake Forest. In 1974, Mrs. Crain became secretary of the company. As her husband ran his part of the family business, Mrs. Crain kept active in charitable circles.

Some 20 years ago, the Crains moved to Florida where Rance Crain bought Golfweek magazine and ran a publishing company called the Turnstile Media Group, apart from Crain Communications. Mrs. Crain was its vice president.

She also helped design her husband’s office building and the couple’s Bermuda-style home.

“She was so good at everything, too,” said her best friend of decades, Mary Lou Ries, be it design, writing, needlepoint, painting, calligraphy, fixing things. “She just seemed to know how to do it.”

Mrs. Crain is also survived by her daughter, Heather Crain; her mother, Frances Patterson; her brother Pat Patterson; and six grandchildren. A memorial service will be held Nov. 12 in Craigville, Mass.

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