Two great ladies I knew recently passed away from cancer. Rita Cashman was an Oak Park friend. The other was a tough, but warm woman who led Forest Park for a dozen years. I didn’t know Lorraine as well as I knew Rita, but I found inspiration from the way both women embraced life and faced death.
“Cancer robs people of their dignity,” someone once told me. In many cases it does. But I saw two families that refused to allow that to happen. From the time Rita was diagnosed four years ago, she and her husband, Phil, refused to bow to the disease.
This is not easy. How many of us focus on the cancer and forget the person? How many succumb to self-pity and despair? Why do we only see the dark cloud approaching and fail to enjoy the sun that is still shining?
Phil and Rita savored the present. Cancer may have been winning the physical battle, but it lost the spiritual war. They remained upbeat, cherishing their time together. It was a powerful example that I’ll never forget.
I saw the same spirit in the Popelka family and felt the same loving energy. Lorraine was surrounded and sustained by her family. This support, along with her personal supply of spunk, enabled her to enjoy a heartfelt tribute at village hall just weeks before her death.
Rita took full advantage of her final days as well. She completed a book about her spiritual journey; a book that took 16 years to write. She hoped it would inspire future generations of women to exercise their gifts in a society that still doesn’t treat women as equals.
Lorraine didn’t write a book. She challenged male-dominated institutions head-on. When her oldest daughter wanted to play softball, Lorraine demanded equal opportunity from the Park District. A league was formed and females finally had the same access to our fields as men.
She also wasn’t afraid to take on the male leadership on the village council. Her tough but fair approach to politics endeared her to voters and enabled her to become our town’s first female mayor.
Even when she held the top job, Lorraine didn’t seem so much interested in power, as in helping Forest Park. You don’t volunteer as a swimming instructor for 15 years if your gods are power and money. I know Lorraine wasn’t consciously campaigning when she taught kids how to swim, but drown-proofing a generation of future-voters was certainly a great way to build a constituency.
As mayor, Lorraine made sure we kept our heads above water financially. Then she laid the foundation for the Madison Street makeover, which made our entire business district buoyant. Rita must be thinking that a woman on the other side of Harlem read her book.