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My last dinner with Dawn Clark Netsch

Dawn Clark Netsch August 27 2009. | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

Dawn Clark Netsch, August 27, 2009. | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: April 7, 2013 6:27AM



‘When in doubt,” my mother always said, “bring food.”

That’s what I did in early January, ringing the doorbell at the Chicago home of Dawn Clark Netsch, carrying homemade crab cakes, meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Dawn, at 86, only months earlier had been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Already it had begun to erode her ability to walk, use her hands or chew. So soft foods, comfort foods, were best.

“Get a glass of wine,” she ordered, sitting at her dining room table. “There’s some chilled white in the refrigerator. I’ll have a glass too.”

But we both knew I was there for more than dinner. I’d come so that she could think out loud about whether to do a final interview. Not just for print but for television too.

Icon. Trailblazer. Breaker-of-glass-ceilings.

Dawn was all that and more. First in her class in law school. One of the first women in the nation to teach in a law school. First woman to win statewide office in Illinois. First woman to win the state’s gubernatorial primary.

But more than all the titles were the actions that went behind them. Walking out of organizations that discriminated against women, blacks or gays. Fighting for reproductive freedom. And working for fiscal sanity in government.

And then this.

ALS.

A hateful, awful disease. A robbery in progress, stealing away the ability to move or talk but cruelly leaving the mind intact to know what’s happening.

There was a genuine debate among the friends who loved Dawn about whether she should appear on camera. About whether it would show her so weakened, so unlike herself that she would regret it. Wouldn’t want to be remembered that way.

But sitting across from Dawn in the dining room of the modern art-filled home that she and the late, famed architect Walter Netsch shared, it was clear that she was going to try.

After all, she was a straight shooter. Not just in that unforgettable 1994 gubernatorial campaign ad where she wielded a pool cue and slammed a ball into a corner pocket. But in everything she did.

Cigarette-smoking, champagne-drinking, lover-of-liverwurst and her beloved Chicago White Sox, Dawn was going to live her life down to the very last minute. And that meant that if she could catch her breath long enough to do it, she was going to tell her own story on her own terms. And maybe, along the way, help the next person who is given this dire diagnosis.

By turns, in our conversation she was fierce. And funny. And, God knows, candid.

“Your crab cakes are very good,” she told me.

And the meatloaf?

“Well,” she said, “you needed to bring more gravy.”

She let out a laugh with that, adding, “You want me to tell you the truth, don’t you?”

You taught us, Dawn, to expect nothing less.



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