Kathy Schulze

While hundreds of thousands of strong, independent women (and supportive men) gathered in Chicago, Washington D.C., across the nation, and beyond to send a message to the Misogynist-in-Chief on his first full day in office, I was attending a funeral in Oak Park. 

I didn’t know Kathy Schulze well, but her name and face are as familiar as family. She was a classmate at Ascension School for nine years, 1957 to 1966. When you share the same sphere of influence from age 5 to 14, you feel a bond.

So when I read the email outpouring from fellow classmates, I decided to attend her funeral, partly to learn more about this special person I missed getting to know. I missed getting to know most of the girls in my class, being shy and sisterless — and with so many kids in our baby-boom-peak class (c. 160), missing people was pretty much inevitable.

I learned that a lot of people admired Kathy. She was described as one of the smartest kids in our class, which she channeled into her sharp wit, yet was also unfailingly kind. Another classmate, Carol Joyce, provided a perfect example. She recalled being on the back end of normal in learning to tie her shoes, which in second grade would have been mortifying to admit. So she tried to think of someone she could ask to tie her shoes before and after gym class without drawing attention to it or making fun of her. She settled on Kathy, who said, “Sure,” and performed her covert ministry until Carol mastered the skill. In second grade that level of kindness was pretty advanced.

Not surprisingly, Kathy became a nurse. She raised her son Jack one block south of the home she grew up in on Scoville Avenue. Jack delivered the eulogy and recalled her reading him the book Love You Forever almost every night, and with each reading she would cry, telling him they were “tears of happiness.”

Kathy Schulze (her married name was Spohn) stayed close to Ascension, which she also forever loved, and Pastor Jim Hurlbert, in his homily, noted that her death was not just a loss for family and friends but for the parish, and its history, as well. 

She suffered from cancer and congestive heart failure, but she attended our 50th reunion last October, and her funeral, of course, was held in the sacred space we shared as kids, which was sad, but, as often happens, grace came to the rescue. I was there, I think, mostly to mourn the passing of our era. Instead, it brought that era alive again, what I call the “paradox of passing away.” Kathy’s death reminded me how lucky I am, how lucky we all are, to grow up when and where we did.

And with whom.

The back cover of the program quoted St. Francis of Assisi: “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing with you that you received — only what you have given: a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage.”

I like the part about giving, but I think we retain much of what we received. When you hear about an old grade-school classmate dying too young, it’s dispiriting. But I left that funeral with a fuller heart.

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal. What a beautiful difference a single life made,” appeared inside the program beneath a Celtic cross interwoven with thistles, a plant that symbolizes the thorniness of life even as it produces flowers of great beauty.

Saturday morning, hundreds of thousands of women swelled Grant Park to overflowing — to demand respect from a new president who desperately craves respect from others yet doesn’t understand how to extend it, especially to women. Don’t be like Trump; tell the strong, independent women in your life how much you appreciate them.

The day was sunny, warm and hopeful, and the Loop must have been a glorious scene. But, I stayed close to home and paid respect to a woman who was smart, witty, loving and kind. I got to know her a little late.

But better than never.

Postscript: Just after I finished writing about Kathy Schulze, I received word of another life-loving woman, Nellie Schultz, who died last Wednesday of ovarian cancer. I met Nellie on a daylong “Labor of Love” volunteer work detail in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood 10 years ago. We enjoyed toiling together so much, we arranged to be on the same detail the following summer.

Nellie was a gem. Over the years, I would see her at Farmers Market at her regular table near the musicians’ circle and stop by to say hi. The second-to-last time I saw her, she told me I should do a story about how difficult Cook County Hospital made things for cancer patients. She was feisty.

The last time I saw her I was in a hurry, so we caught each other’s eye and exchanged a wave and a smile. She had a great smile.

We didn’t agree on some things politically, but when we worked together, we were solidly on common ground. She once told me she didn’t want the Cubs to win the World Series because she was afraid they would lose their charm. Well, she lived to see the unthinkable happen. I’m guessing she wasn’t too terribly disappointed.

The Cubs may lose their charm, but she never did.

Nellie and Kathy, Schultz and Schulze, taught me a lesson in living a fuller life. They taught me not to be shy around strong, independent women.

And that I was never really sisterless.

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