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Dawn Clark Netsch, Leader in Law and Politics, Dies at 86

Influential public servant, esteemed teacher, friend and mentor to generations of students

CHICAGO --- Dawn Clark Netsch, a professor of law emerita at Northwestern University School of Law who left an indelible mark in politics and law in a long career filled with “firsts,” died early this morning (March 5). She was 86.

Visit the Dawn Clark Netsch memorial Web site to comment in the guest book and learn how to make a memorial gift.

“Over the course of a long and outstanding career, she was an influential public servant, an esteemed teacher, a beloved colleague and a friend and mentor to generations of students,” said Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University School of Law. “She was a trailblazer whose legacy includes numerous ‘firsts.’” 

Netsch served as an Illinois state senator for 18 years. When she was elected as state comptroller in 1990, she became the highest-ranked woman in Illinois state government and the first elected to state constitutional executive office in Illinois.  

She again made history in 1994 as the first woman to run for governor of Illinois as a candidate of a major political party. She was defeated in the general election by Republican Jim Edgar.

Before winning her political campaign for state senate in 1970, Netsch was an architect of Illinois’ current state constitution. She served as legal adviser to Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner in the 1960s, when no woman had held such a post. Most recently, she served on the board overseeing the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

“At Northwestern Law, she brought her unique skills to the focused study of state and local government law,” Dean Rodriguez said. “Dawn always reminded us that ‘all politics is local’ and that our legal and social community can only be understood by exposure to the real world of political officials and lawyers working constructively on behalf of the common good.”

“She had energy and a verve for life almost to the very end,” said Robert Bennett, the Nathaniel L. Nathanson Professor of Law and former dean of Northwestern Law.

Cynthia Grant Bowman, a professor at Cornell University Law School who served on the Northwestern faculty with Netsch from 1988 to 2006, wrote a book about Netsch’s life in politics. The following quote is from a Northwestern story about the book, “Dawn Clark Netsch: A Political Life” (Northwestern University Press, 2010).

"Dawn Clark Netsch's story is that of a political trailblazer, who fought hard for women's rights, good government and public education in the rough and tumble world of Illinois politics," said Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, in the story. "Her integrity, intellect and tenaciousness make her an inspiration to all who follow in her wake."

The following is a quote from Netsch that was in a Northwestern video that accompanied the story on her book.

“My feeling always was if you wanted to do something you should be able to do it, whatever your gender,” Netsch said in the video. ”I didn't really think of myself as opening doors or whatever. I was just doing what I wanted to do, and I thought that was what all people, including women, should be allowed to do.”

The following is a quote from Northwestern Law Professor Leonard Rubinowitz on the book jacket of Bowman’s book about Netsch.

“Like Dawn Clark Netsch herself, this book is lively, honest, intelligent, and compassionate,” Rubinowitz said. “Netsch is a woman who has always been ahead of her time, yet she never really viewed herself as a feminist -- rather a passionate and persistent fighter for progressive causes (including women’s issues) and participatory democracy. 

“She simply broke her way into one ‘boys’ club’ after another through her intelligence, her powerful and engaging personality, and her ability to negotiate across the lines that usually separate and divide us. 

“Bowman captures beautifully her subject’s extraordinary half-century of serving the public, her tireless and tenacious efforts to make government better, and her continuing struggle for social justice.”

Kimberly Yurako, professor of law at Northwestern, said Netsch was known as a force of nature.

“Although small in size, she would fill a room and hold everyone in rapt attention with stories about Chicago politics, jokes and, of course, advice for her beloved White Sox -- all told with a twinkle in her eye and many hearty laughs,” Yurako said.

Dean Rodriguez summed up the loss that so many are feeling today.

“Mere words cannot suffice in describing the loss Dawn’s passing represents to our law school community, the legal academy as a whole, the city of Chicago, our state and our country,” he said.

Netsch graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern in 1948 and received her JD from Northwestern University School of Law in 1952. In 1965, she became the law school’s first female faculty member. Netsch was married to the late architect Walter Netsch, who died in 2008.

A memorial service for Netsch will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 13, at Northwestern’s Thorne Auditorium, 375 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago.

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