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Dawn Clark Netsch: Illinois Leader and Childhood Hero Dies at 86

03/05/2013 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2013

Dawn Clark Netsch was the first woman I really admired. I was five years old and in awe of her--her voice, her clothes, her ideas. When she spoke, she knew what she was talking about. I wanted my hair cut just like hers. I wanted to grow up and be like her.

In 1970, my mother was elected as a delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention, and Dawn was too. My mother and Dawn went to law school when very few women did; Dawn graduated from Northwestern University's law school in 1952, and my mother graduated from the University of Chicago in 1966, after the dean forced her to sit out a semester when she was pregnant with me.

Some days, I would sit on the floor next to my mother's desk at home in Chicago and pretend I, too, was writing the state's constitution on yellow legal pads. Sometimes, my mother would take me to Springfield to see the convention, and I would sit in the balcony and listen to the debates. My mother would introduce me to the other delegates, and some, like Dawn and Elmer Gertz (and his wife Maime), would make me feel as if I belonged there. They taught me that this--writing the future--was what adults did.

In 1972, Dawn Clark Netsch was elected to the Illinois State Senate. When I did my college internship studying women's issues in the state legislature with lobbyist Lana Hostetler, there was Dawn, still fighting for fiscal responsibility, ethical government, and whatever else she thought needed to be fixed or preserved. After I left Illinois and started graduate school, Dawn was elected Illinois Comptroller, the first woman to be elected to statewide office in Illinois.

One evening, I was at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game, and a couple walked in front of us. I said, "That woman looks just like Dawn Clark Netsch." Suddenly, I knew that no one else looked like Dawn, so I ran to catch up with her. Dawn was a lifelong White Sox fan and caught a game whenever and wherever she could. She remembered me, probably not so much me as she knew my parents, the parties they threw in the backyard, the policies they hashed out with her to try to make the world a better place.

In 1994, Dawn ran for governor, beating the odds to win the Democratic nomination. She was the first woman in Illinois to win the gubernatorial nomination. At some point in her political career, a stylist was brought in to assess her image, which some thought too frumpy or professorial. That stylist didn't see the tough-talker, the baseball fan, the person who laughed with friends, the Democrat who bucked the so-called machine, the woman I wanted to be when I was five years old. Dawn didn't change, and she didn't win the governorship. Like my mother, Dawn would rather lose than lie, a lesson I hope I've learned.

The last time I spoke with Dawn was in December, within hours of my mother's death. I had spoken with her several months earlier, and the change in her voice--her difficulty breathing--was evident. Dawn said that she'd been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, and the going was tough. Mostly, though, we talked about my mother, about their friendship, about how she'd miss sharing political gossip with my mom. The women of that generation were more than the sum of their parts, and they blazed a wide trail for the women of my generation, thinking not only of their own personal choices but about the public good.

Today, Netsch is dead, a result of complications of ALS at the age of 86. My mother died less than three months ago, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 72. I will miss them both. And I will try to grow up and be more like them.

To hear Dawn Clark Netsch in her own words, click HERE for an oral history project interview with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in 2010.