Northwestern Law Prof. Dawn Clark Netsch remembered for ‘absolute, unshakeable integrity’

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) remembered Northwestern Law Prof. Dawn Clark Netsch on Saturday as

Source: Northwestern School of Law

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) remembered Northwestern Law Prof. Dawn Clark Netsch on Saturday as “the smartest person in the room.” Netsch passed away last month after battling with ALS.

Lauren Caruba, In Focus Editor

CHICAGO — Illinois’ luminaries on Saturday remembered Northwestern Law Prof. Dawn Clark Netsch (Weinberg ’48, Law ’52) as a brilliant pioneer who broke almost every glass ceiling in state politics.

“She was always the smartest person in the room … and a person of absolute, unshakeable integrity,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said during a funeral service at the School of Law’s Thorne Auditorium in Chicago.

Netsch was the first woman to hold statewide office in Illinois as the state comptroller, the state’s first female candidate for governor from a major political party and the first female faculty member of Northwestern’s School of Law. When she graduated at the top of law school’s class of 1952, she was its only female student.

Netsch passed away March 5 after battling with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 86.

More than 600 people laughed and nodded along as eight speakers recalled Netsch’s quirks, snappy comebacks and trademark stubbornness.

“It was that great outsized passion that she shared with all of us and that gives us that standard of what we can do, what we can accomplish,” Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) read a letter from someone he said “couldn’t be here but wanted to be” — President Barack Obama.

“Dawn refused to accept gender as an obstacle to success,” Cullerton read from Obama’s letter. “Breaking barrier after barrier in law, academia and public service, she became an extraordinary trailblazer for women and girls.”

Political prowess aside, many speakers also praised Netsch for her self-deprecating humor and recreational passions, including the Chicago White Sox, liverwurst and champagne. The funeral honored Netsch’s love of Chicago’s arts scene with a musical interlude performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which she attended regularly with her husbands of 45 years, architect Walter Netsch.

Even as Netsch’s heath declined, her family said she couldn’t be stopped from answering the phone or door. Andrew Kerr, Netsch’s nephew, recalled how he and his aunt’s friends operated as the “Dawn patrol” to keep her well rested.

“Dawn loved to talk to friends and other well-wishers, even after she agreed she had to limit her talking,” Kerr said. “Dawn Clark Netsch limit her talking? Talking was her stock and trade.”

NU Law Prof. Len Rubinowitz also talked about Netsch’s knack for companionship, especially with the colleagues and students she encountered . Rubinowitz described how much he valued the conversations with her in his office and during cab rides, noting how frequently her students became “hooked on Dawn.”

In a video message played during the funeral, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin said she admired Netsch for being open about her struggle with ALS.

“Dawn Clark Netsch was not just another pretty face,” Marin said, echoing Netsch’s gubernatorial campaign slogan. “She was, as far as I’m concerned, a goddess.”

The ceremony closed with a viewing of a TV ad that aired during Netsch’s successful run in the 1994 Democratic primary for Illinois governor. The famous commercial shows Netsch winning a game of pool, playing off her image as a “straight shooter.”