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Pastora San Juan Cafferty, academic, public servant, dies at age 72

Obit phoPastorSan Juan Cafferty University Chicago professor leader Chicago Hispanic community.

Obit photo of Pastora San Juan Cafferty, University of Chicago professor and a leader in the Chicago Hispanic community.

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Updated: May 22, 2013 6:58AM

Back when Pastora San Juan Cafferty was valedictorian at her college in small-town Alabama, graduation speaker Ethel Kennedy gave her some advice — and she listened.

“Honey,” said the wife of then-U.S. Attorney Robert Kennedy, “You’ve got to get out of this little town and go to Washington.”

The young Pastora headed to the District of Columbia, and the upward trajectory of her life began. She became a respected University of Chicago professor who received government appointments from four U.S. presidents, an Illinois governor, and three Chicago mayors. The students she mentored developed into accomplished academics in their own right.

Her intellect helped her succeed. An internal drive, unwavering as a magnetic field, helped her survive challenge and tragedy.

When she was about 7, her father, sensing revolution more than a decade away, moved his family from their native Cuba to the U.S. Soon after, her parents lost their entire life savings to con men who were happy to separate newcomers from their money, said her brother, Rafael San Juan.

Her father’s struggle with mental illness made her childhood home a volatile place. Jose Antonio San Juan refused medication and therapy. On bad days, he could be violent, Rafael San Juan said. But even as a girl, if her father dared to strike her, Pastora stood her ground. “She’d say, ‘go ahead — hit me again, you coward,’ ” her brother said.

She experienced the deaths of two husbands — both gone before their third wedding anniversaries, her brother said.

Yet, she remained positive and loving, friends and relatives said.

“She had a temperament unlike anyone I’ve ever encountered,” said Bernie Sahlins, who helped found Second City. “Every experience, for her, was a delight.”

Ms. Cafferty, 72, died of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma Tuesday at her Gold Coast home. Just hours before, she was still emailing friends from her iPad, with messages that are giving them comfort.

One, under the heading “sory (sic) I have disappeared,” went to Ron Huberman.

“Ron, the cancer has come back very aggressively,” she wrote. “I have been at Rush and exhausted. I entered hospice today. I think of you often and fondly. You are a remarkable human being. Love to you, Darren and the children.”

Huberman recalled her as a mentor who remained disarming, even while challenging government and corporate boards. “There’s not a lot of charming people who are as deep as Pastora, and who were as devoted to the needs of others,” said Huberman, former head of the Chicago Public Schools, the CTA, and a chief of staff to Mayor Daley.

She grew up in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Her father was a pharmaceutical executive. “We had a nanny, a cook and a maid,” said Rafael San Juan. Their father did not learn to drive, because “he had a chauffeur on call.”

But he sensed revolution. “When he told my relatives that everything was going to change, they all said he was crazy,” Rafael San Juan said.

They wound up in Cullman, Ala., where their mother, Hortensia Hourruitner, taught Spanish at St. Bernard College, and young Pastora earned her bachelor’s degree.

Taking Kennedy’s advice, she went to Washington and earned a master’s and doctorate in American Literary and Cultural History from George Washington University. She was a White House Fellow and a Smithsonian Research Fellow.

In Washington, she met Michael Cafferty, who was later appointed CTA chairman by Mayor Richard J. Daley. They moved to Chicago and were married just a few years when he succumbed to stomach cancer in 1973.

She joined the University of Chicago in 1971, and stayed 34 years. She worked in the School of Social Service Administration, specializing in race, ethnicity and immigration. Ms. Cafferty wrote or edited numerous books on Hispanics. (Sometimes, she grew so engrossed in research that she set off burglar alarms when she tried to leave the university library, said her friend, June Rosner.)

“Hispanics are a fascinating panethnic, a very diverse population racially, ethnically and nationally,” she told the University of Chicago Chronicle. “I believe that the way we incorporate this diversity into our national consciousness will say a great deal, not about Hispanics necessarily, but about our whole system of political and social justice.”

She was decades “ahead of the curve,” said a co-author, David Engstrom, an associate professor at the San Diego State University School of Social Work. “Up until the 1970s, social work generally thought of ethnicity only through the prism of black/white relations.”

Rose M. Perez had an MBA and worked in ethnic marketing until a class with Ms. Cafferty opened up a new world. “Ten years later, I had done two master’s — one in social work, and one in Latin American studies; then, a Ph.D. in social work,” said Perez, an assistant professor at Fordham University who teaches on immigrant and refugee issues.

In 1988, Ms. Cafferty married Dr. Henry Russe, former dean of Rush Medical College. He died of a heart attack in 1991.

She was a senior study director with U. of C.’s National Opinion Research Center, and helped found the faculty of the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy.

She served on the boards of the RTA; Harris Bank; Kimberly-Clark; Peoples Energy, Waste Management; Casa Central; the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; the Lyric Opera, and Rush University Medical Center. “You can do a lot in a room with 12 to 15 people, if you are prepared and persuasive,” she told June Rosner.

Ms. Cafferty also appeared on panels on women’s issues with Oprah Winfrey and Jehan Sadat, widow of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Ms. Cafferty enjoyed travel to China, Peru and Eastern Europe. She never passed a homeless person without giving them money, her brother said.

Her home featured vivid art reflecting her Caribbean heritage, and her collection of frog figurines. She loved to cook and eat arroz con pollo and flan.

Despite the tumult caused by her father’s mental illness, she stayed in contact, writing him letters, and visiting him later in life, her brother said.

She also is survived by four nieces, a nephew and five grandnephews.

A memorial is planned 3-7 p.m. Tuesday at Old St. Pat’s Church, 700 W. Adams, followed by a funeral mass.

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