When the South Korean president and first lady visited Chicago this month, they were honored at a dinner in the Cultural Center by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and an understated woman the city doesn’t know — Amy Rule, his wife.
Although Emanuel was inaugurated in mid-May, it was not until Oct. 14 that Rule made her official debut as first lady, meeting South Korean leader Lee Myung-Bak and his wife, Kim Yoon-Ok, at O’Hare Airport and co-hosting the dinner with her husband.
Rule has an intense desire to remain private while the reality is that her husband’s job has made her somewhat a public figure. I bet most of you would not recognize Rule — and that’s fine with her.
Private, unpretentious and humble are a few of the words friends and acquaintances use to describe her. She’s also known as being fun and witty.
Like her husband, she’s trim and wiry. She runs, bikes and kayaks. Unlike her husband, she’s not caught up in politics.
Above all, she is a devoted mother. Since Zacharia, the couple’s oldest child, was born, Rule has been a stay-at-home mom.
When she moved to Washington after Emanuel became President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, she cherished her anonymity, her pals said, and was not enthusiastic about giving it up.
Rule remained at their Ravenswood home with their children when Emanuel started in the Obama White House. Eventually, the family moved temporarily to a big house near the Washington National Cathedral.
As Emanuel departed Washington to jump into the Chicago mayoral race, the president tipped his hat to Rule. At Obama’s Oct. 1, 2010, send-off for Emanuel, the president noted: “Much to Amy’s chagrin, I’ve intruded on [Emanuel's] life at almost any hour of the day, any day of the week.”
Rule is the yin to Emanuel’s yang. She is the warm to his cold.
“She’s smart and thoughtful and understated and in some ways the polar opposite of him,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton White House press secretary who met Emanuel when they worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
“He obviously is the outgoing of the two. She is a more reserved person,” said Cathy Russell, one of Rule’s closest friends who knows about the role of a first lady because she is the chief of staff to second lady Jill Biden.
Emanuel kept in check
While Emanuel dominates the city’s news, Rule, 54, prefers to stay behind the scenes. She would rather this profile not be written. She declined to be interviewed for this story. City Hall provided limited cooperation.
“Amy Rule is not a public official and values her privacy and that of her children,” said Emanuel’s communications chief Chris Mather. “We request that the media respect that.”
Emanuel has a reputation as a bully in the bully pulpit. By all accounts — including Emanuel’s — Rule does not put up with his famed bombastic brashness.
Riffing off Obama’s famous takedown of Hillary Rodham Clinton during a presidential primary debate, Emanuel quipped at the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner in 2008, “I tell my wife I love her and she says I’m likable enough.”
David Boul, Emanuel’s campaign fund treasurer said, “I think she keeps him in check. I think she keeps him grounded.”
Just how would that work?
Rule “gently prods him when she thinks he is a little off track,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist who met Rule when she started dating Emanuel. “She has been good about making him, encouraging him to put work in its proper place and focus on his family.”
While publicity averse, Rule is not a recluse.
She has been a sought-after guest, courted by the elite social circles in Washington. In March, the Washington Post reported she attended a dinner hosted by Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and his wife, Rima. Emanuel, the Post noted, was “officially there as husband of Amy Rule.”
Rule’s Republican parents
Amy Merritt Rule was born on June 30, 1957, in New London, Conn., and is two years and five months older than the 52-year-old Emanuel, who was born on Nov. 29, 1959.
Rule grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls. Her parents are Republicans, according to Ohio voting records. Her mother, Mary, is a retired teacher. Her father, Adrian, still works at his Chagrin Falls firm, Environmental Growth Chambers.
Rule is the middle of three children. Her sister, Hilary, is an attorney with a Cleveland law firm. Her brother, also named Adrian, works with their father.
In 1975 Rule graduated from Laurel School for Girls in Shaker Heights. Her mother taught English at the private high school.
Rule graduated from Tufts University in 1982 with a history of art degree from the Boston-area school. She earned a masters in medieval art history from the University of Chicago in 1986. She joined the Art Institute of Chicago as the assistant director of government and foundation relations.
A blind date
She met her future husband in 1990 on a blind date arranged by Antonia Contro, the executive director of Chicago’s Marwen Foundation, an organization focused on bringing art into the lives of disadvantaged youths.
By 1991, Rule lived in a high-rise condo at 2020 N. Lincoln Park West and was dating Emanuel steadily.
At that point, Emanuel had already launched a career as a political operative and fund-raiser. He raised some $7 million for Richard Daley’s 1989 mayoral campaign, solidifying his connections with Daley and his brother, Bill, who would go on to replace him as White House chief of staff.
As their relationship flourished, Rule shifted careers, leaving the Art Institute.
Rule started the first of her two jobs in Daley’s City Hall in the city’s Planning and Environment departments during the 1990s.
At the Department of Planning, Rule was a project manager. She was promoted to assistant commissioner of Natural Resources in the Department of Environment.
Henry Henderson was the commissioner and Rule’s boss. He said her duties included working on the revival of North Park Village, Southeast Side wetlands and Lake Michigan shoreline management.
In a fateful coincidence, Rule was in the Daley administration at the same time as other women who went on to the Obama White House: Valerie Jarrett, Susan Sher, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, and Michelle Obama.
Meanwhile, her romance with Emanuel took a turn.
During 1991, Emanuel moved to Clinton’s Little Rock, Ark., headquarters to jumpstart the fund-raising drive for Clinton’s presidential campaign.
As Henderson remembers it, Emanuel and Rule became engaged while she was at City Hall. Emanuel by then was at the Clinton White House. Rule moved to Washington, her first of two stints in the nation’s capital.
Conversion to Judaism
Once in Washington, she enrolled at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania’s business school, commuting to Philadelphia to pick up a MBA.
Rule juggled school with a new job: director of private sector relations for the Peace Corps. Mark Gearan was her boss; he worked with Emanuel in the White House before the Peace Corps.
“She is very smart, very compassionate, very calm, she has a fun sense of humor and I think she provides a great compliment to Rahm’s energy,” Gearan said.
Rule easily fit in with Emanuel’s White House friends, holding her own when she joined him at their informal Wednesday night group sessions.
It was during this period that Rule, raised Episcopalian, studied for and converted to Judaism. Embracing Emanuel’s religion was a process she took “extremely seriously,” one of her friends said. “She took it on totally.”
The late Rabbi William Frankel married Rule and Emanuel on June 5, 1994, at the South Shore Cultural Center — the same lakefront venue where Barack and Michelle Obama held their wedding reception on Oct. 3, 1992. Axelrod signed their Ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract.
At their wedding, “the Democrats sat on Rahm’s side and the Republicans were on her side,” recalled David Wilhelm, who was Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager. The political talk “fell short of fisticuffs, it was good natured, but certainly intense, that’s my memory.”
Their first children were born in Washington — Zacharia in 1997 and Ilana in 1998, a few weeks before Emanuel quit the Clinton White House to return to Chicago. Leah was born in 2000.
After Emanuel was elected to Congress in 2002, Rule spent stretches running their home — and their Union Pier, Mich., retreat — on her own when Emanuel was away.
Before returning to Washington, Rule was active at her kids’ Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School. A talented cook, “she was in charge of creating the cookbook for a fund-raiser,” at Anshe Emet, Boul recalled.
Rule also joined several boards through the years: Marwen’s for a time, and the Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Rule is currently on the board of After School Matters, founded by former First Lady Maggie Daley. Recent stories detailed how some developers said City Hall pressured them for donations to the group when Daley was mayor.
It may be awhile before Rule embraces a first lady agenda.
“Her motherhood defines her, Washington friend Laurie Strongin said. “That’s her top priority.”
Her close friend Russell predicted, “I think she will take it one step at a time and get everybody settled back in the house and back at school and see what happens. She is obviously a very smart, very caring warm person and I imagine she will be a huge asset to the civic life of Chicago.”