Heart of the Matter

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A heartfelt look by Aaron B. Cohen at the great arc of life through the prism of its details.

Heart of the Matter

‘We'll always have Whitwell’

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After 33 years working for JUF, my colleague, my friend, Kathleen Evans retired. She served as JUF News Operations Manager and Managing Editor of the Guide to Jewish Living in Chicago.

What a change; nothing here will ever be the same.

Throughout her 33 years here, change was, if not a constant, than certainly an accelerating reality. Her role in the Communications Department and with JUF News grew and evolved, from the era of electric typewriters, to her pioneering efforts that helped launch JUF's first website. For many years she was the chief steward for SEIU, the union representing employees of JUF and its agencies. For her entire tenure, she was friend and confidant, and pillar of support to many, not least to me. At every twist and turn she stood for good, for fairness, for faith, and for justice. 

Kathleen's was the first face I saw when I arrived on the seventh floor of our old headquarters on South Franklin St., red-faced, 40, still with a modicum of hair, and with high hopes to serve the Jewish people. We were tied at the hip ever since-more than 17 years-until her office, filled with chachkies, became empty, silent and still.

Legacies are not about offices, or bric a brac, and Kathleen's long and notable presence at JUF subverts any silence. She was a talker, and her words were often filled with wisdom. "Stop thinking!" she often would admonish me, whenever she sensed that I was perseverating on an idea she knew would bear no fruit. "Chepoketa, chepoketa," she would tease me, mimicking Danny Kaye's whimsical character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to reign me in from my flights of fancy. "Be careful what you wish for," she would warn me, taming my impetuous desire for change, which in retrospect perhaps came too quickly after all.

My first encounter with her came long before we ever met, and I'm confident that our final encounter lies somewhere off in the (hopefully distant) future. It was at the Renaissance Fair, during a hot summer in the early 1980s. I was performing there with a musical group. How vividly I recall a large, red-haired lady, dressed as an Elizabethan wench, hawking "fresh frittahs! Git yah fresh frittahs ea'ah!" Seems that she, too, remembered the funny little Balkan band in which I played. How strange that years later, fate would put us together working for JUF News.

Fate, it seemed, has always dealt strange cards to Kathleen. Intrepid is the word I always used to describe her, because no matter what calamity she faced, and she has suffered many, she always has known not only how to survive, not only how to triumph, but also how to provide a model of grace, generosity, perseverance, and true grit to all the people around her.

Memorable moments with Kathleen are too bountiful to recount here, and the moment of her departure is too recent and raw to frame. What stands out right now is the Ride to Remember in May 2006, a journey by Jewish motorcyclists to Whitwell, Tenn., to honor the school's Paperclip Project in memory of the Holocaust. Kathleen, a one-time Harley Davidson rider, arranged for us to go on a whirlwind trip, as chase car for the Chicago-area Chaiway Riders. We made the trip to that rural Tenn. school and back in less than 36 hours. With her red hat perched on her head (at some point she had given up her purple SEIU jacket to become a dyed in the wool red hatter), and her penetrating blue eyes fixed to the road, Kathleen gave me a ride I'll never forget. It was a ride filled with wit, with wisdom, with banter, with laughter, and most certainly with tears.

That's the way it always was working with Kathleen. That's the way it always will be. The ride is not yet over, even if this long and winding stretch of road seems suddenly to have given way to some other highway, the likes of which we haven't seen.  

In closing I'll share with you three insider words. You'll have to repeat them to yourself several times to grasp them. Words Kathleen and I have said to one another often, they transport us to a special place, which we call "Isle of View." It's a place from which there is no retirement.

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