Everyone who knew Carolyn Poplett has a story about her. They remember her soft-spoken Southern drawl, her regal carriage and stylish presence, her bright eyes and infectious laugh.
And they will tell you how she used these traits to involve them in her latest project!
A dedicated volunteer since coming to Oak Park in 1956, Carolyn was adept at encouraging others to serve as well. Smart and self-assured, she was in the vanguard of causes she believed in — the importance of a diverse, supportive community; the lessons of history; and the value of women’s work. Her vision, philanthropy and commitment made changes that are still having an impact today.
Carolyn focused most of her energies on two organizations: Thrive (formerly known as Family Services of Oak Park and River Forest) and the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association (NCCA, formerly known as the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club). As president of Family Services, she expanded the agency’s provision of mental health services in the community and beyond. She was later honored with both the prestigious Rita Johnson Humanitarian Award in 2001 and the Spirit of Thrive Award in 2014.
For the centennial of the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club in 1992, she wrote an organizational history titled, The Gentle Force. It was my privilege to serve as her editor then, and to spearhead the soon-to-be-released second edition now. At its March fundraising gala, the NCCA honored Carolyn with its first Gentle Force Award, recognizing her contributions to the organization and the community.
While doing the research for that book, she came across the story of club member Grace Wilbur Trout, who led the fight for women’s suffrage in Illinois. I was delighted to collaborate with her again, resulting in the 2000 publication of the first Trout biography, The Woman Who Never Fails. Carolyn reached out to the Trout family in Florida to uncover firsthand stories and primary sources; her outreach and skills as a connector resulted in a later donation of historical documents and photos by the family to the Historical Society.
The biography received an Award of Merit from the Illinois State Historical Society. And during the recent centennial of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the site of the Trout home on Forest Avenue was recognized with a historical marker on the “National Votes for Women Trail,” a project of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation.
Carolyn also supported other organizations with energy, ideas, and generous donations of time and money that enabled them to dream big and achieve those dreams. She was president of the Economy Shop and an active volunteer and philanthropist with the Infant Welfare Society, Senior Citizens Center of OP-RF, the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, and the American Opera Society of Chicago.
She once said, “When you are asked to do something, say yes. You never know where it will lead you.” She never stopped saying yes. Her passion and drive continued to spur action and activism decades after she lit the fuse.
She was my mentor and friend, a “gentle force” who continues to inspire.
Carolyn Poplett, 92, of River Forest, died peacfully at home on May 18, 2022. She was married to the late Ray E. Poplett, an attorney. She is survived by her sons, John and James, and her granddaughter, Allison Ruth Poplett. Carolyn was an advocate for mental health and social well-being in her community. Donations may be made in her memory to Nineteenth Century Charitable Association, https://www.nineteenthcentury.org. Arrangements were handled by Chicagoland Cremation Options of Schiller Park.
Mary Ann Porucznik is a member of the Historical Society of OP-RF, the 19th Century Charitable Association and the League of Women Voters of OP-RF.