Gerri Brauneis

What qualities anchored Gerri Brauneis to her life and work? What words come to the fore? Certainly love and respect, as well as commitment and stamina. Gerri generously fought, decade after decade, for social justice in so many forms.

“Racial justice, gun control, homelessness, torture, economic justice, interfaith relationships were among her many causes,” said a spokesperson for the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, another cause she supported. “[Gerri] was the embodiment of radical love.”

Geraldine Brauneis died on Feb. 29, 2016 in Oak Park. She was 85.

Born on Sept. 10, 1930 in Los Angeles, she was the only child of Robert and Jean Riddell (nee Tallon). 

In a 1941 entry, her mother made it clear who came first when she wrote:

“Had haircut and permanent; went to Camp Teresita Pines; took first swimming lesson; war declared upon Japan and Germany.”

Given her future civil rights work, it was most appropriate if not prophetic that her favorite movie was To Kill a Mockingbird, with Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the principled, courageous Atticus Finch.

At the age of 13, Gerri entered Immaculate Heart High School, where she won an award for participating in the “Schools at War” program, saving money for War Savings stamps and serving “school, community, and nation.”

She was valedictorian of her high school class and entered Stanford University. In 1952, she graduated with a degree in political science. A year later she moved to Chicago to work with Young Catholic Students, where she met her future husband, Bill Brauneis, who was involved in a parallel group called Young Catholic Workers. 

When Bill was drafted into the Army, Gerri went to New York to work at a clerical job. Two years later, he was back from the Army, and Gerri had returned to Chicago, having found her New York job unrewarding. Bill needed a date for a “Stag or Drag” dance and Gerri obligingly became his footloose partner. They were married five months later. 

Gerri and Bill made their first home in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, and soon started a family. Over the next decade, Robert, Jim, Steve, and Laura were born, as were two other sons, John and Paul Roger, who sadly died at or shortly after their births.

As her family began to grow, Gerri’s activism blossomed on multiple stages; she became a Democratic precinct captain while enrolling her children in a Montessori school and later helping to establish an alternative junior high school program. She was a “stay-at-home” mom who broke that mold; a variety of community issues brought her out of the house as soon as she had finished making lunches and bundling children off to school while Bill busied himself starting his own business. 

After moving to Oak Park in 1973, she supported an experimental program at Oak Park and River Forest High School that became known as “XP.” According to Margaret Field, friend, fellow parent and fellow-activist, this open and experimental concept encouraged small groups of children to work on projects in the wider community, “instead of learning by rote behind desks with teachers as leaders.”

Once Laura, her youngest, was off to first grade, Gerri headed to law school, shape-shifting in short order into lawyer. She trotted off dressed in her trademark colors and all-engulfing grin.

“I thought [being a lawyer] would be more interesting than working as a checker at the Jewel,” she said in a 2003 interview, recorded with her son Jim and his wife Laurie. “I had a family at home so it wasn’t a matter of being a diplomat in service, which I’ve always thought I’d like to do.” 

She graduated from Chicago Kent School of Law in 1978 and humbly thanked her children and husband for supporting her during that hectic time. 

Bob in particular, her eldest child by several years, helped feed, soothe, and keep the other three in check while she studied.

She joined Oak Park’s Police Review Committee in the early 1980s, a two-year volunteer position. She was worried in particular about police treatment of African Americans in an integrating community.

The related issue of gun control spurred her into further action. The village’s handgun ban went into effect in 1985 and there was great cause for celebration — until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ban 25 years later. 

Soon after graduating from law school, she joined Gradel, Smith & Brauneis in Oak Park and worked as a family lawyer until 1990. A generous person and not one to pester for payment, she soon had a roster filled with pro bono cases.

In the early 1990s, she accepted a challenging and heart-wrangling job as an attorney for the Office of Legal Guardianship in Chicago, advocating for vulnerable children who sometimes came to see her with welts on their backs from recent beatings.

Around the same time, she and Bill began volunteering among the homeless in their Oak Park neighborhood. They helped re-establish a failing shelter called Public Action to Deliver Shelter, popularly known by its acronym: PADS (now known as Housing Forward).

“Different churches and institutions gave up space one night a week dedicated to feeding and housing homeless people,” her friend, Margaret Field, recalled.

Depending on the weather the room would swell with individuals and families looking for warmth, a meal, a listening ear, and the legal advice Gerri offered gratis in a corner of the room.

She was a walker not a talker, said Field, often working the breakfast shift and even sticking around to wash the dishes.

With all of the kids out of the house, she and Bill also found it easier to travel, and travel they did, to Russia, Uzbekistan, Iran, Nepal, China, Mongolia, Japan, South Africa, Botswana, and Guatemala — and that’s only the beginning of the list.

Back in Oak Park, much of her activist work was done through her church, St. Giles, and within the lay Catholic community. In particular, she worked on the issues of women’s rights, of sexual abuse within the church, and for voter education. She also labored hard for the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine. 

“[The organization] was really trying to be the voice of the Palestinian people, which they didn’t think was well represented,” said Field. 

During this past decade, the committee met at the Brauneis home, tossing around ideas such as the annual walk for justice, sponsored by a citywide coalition of progressive political organizations.

 “What do I most miss about Gerri?” reflected Field, “I miss her phone messages … she would get into a lot of detail.”

Gerri Brauneis did have much to say, and she did keep speaking her truth, lending her support and acting on her convictions.

She will be sadly missed by her husband, Bill; her children, Robert (Ulrike), James (Laurie), Steven (Masako), and Laura (William Rentz); and her grandchildren, Elizabeth, William, Kate, Kai, Sho, and Sophia-Marie.

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