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Helen Doria, cultural programmer for Chicago parks, helped design Bloomingdale Trail, dies at 61

Helen Doria. | Phoby Lauren Deutsch

Helen Doria. | Photo by Lauren Deutsch

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Updated: January 29, 2013 6:23AM

When Chicago’s parks seemed to have more gang members than ordinary people in the early 1990s, authorities turned to Helen Doria to help lure average citizens back.

Ms. Doria, then a cultural programmer for the Chicago Park District, staged a series of culturally diverse “mini-festivals” that drew a wide range of visitors and helped make the parks a popular destination, said CTA President Forrest Claypool, who then was Chicago’s park superintendent.

“She was unique,” Claypool said Wednesday. “She had an extraordinary ability to bring people together. When I was superintendent, she was the go-to person on cultural programming.”

Ms. Doria, who also was executive director of Millennium Park from 2004 to 2007, died Sunday of complications after a long battle with liver disease. She was 61.

What made Ms. Doria effective was her extensive knowledge of Chicago’s arts world and her ability to put on programs “that appealed to everyone in every community,” Claypool said.

For example, in one of her programs, children learned to grow gourds in the parks and then learned how to cook their produce and eat it, Claypool said. But they also learned how to make some of the gourds into musical instruments and then learned how to play them.

“That was classic Helen,” Claypool said. “She combined all of these things in one program.”

Ms. Doria, the oldest of eight children, grew up on the Southwest Side near Midway Airport and attended Queen of Peace High School, where she was active in civil rights. She earned a B.A. in political science and history in 1973 at Mundelein College.

After graduating, she worked in cultural programming jobs for both the city and the Park District.

“Her impact was immeasurable,” said Katy Hogan, co-founder of the Heartland Restaurant on the North Side and a longtime friend. “She figured out how to bring art into the community so it wasn’t only for those who had means. She was a great promoter of youth involvement in anything that she did — from the parks and cultural activities to politics and community efforts.”

After leaving the Park District, Ms. Doria formed her own performing-arts consulting firm, Helen Doria Consulting. Rahm Emanuel appointed her to his transition team’s art-and-culture committee, and more recently she was helping to design the Bloomingdale Trail, a three-mile elevated linear park that will run through the heart of Chicago on an old railroad bed.

Ms. Doria also was active with the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School at 2641 S. Calumet and the Chicago Jazz Workshop.

Ms. Doria is survived by her mother, Marie Doria; seven siblings: Joseph (Roseanna) Doria, III, James Doria (Karen Jaros-Doria), Rose Doria (Steve Barrett), Lawrence (Beth) Doria, Carol T. Doria, Maria Doria-Korber (Christopher Korber) and John (Debra) Doria; 17 nieces and nephews; and five great nieces and nephews.

Visitation will be Friday from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Adolf Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Ltd. 7000 S. Madison St. in Willowbrook. A funeral service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home.

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