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Catherine A. Leyser dies at 68; helped railroad workers, families

Cathy Leyser visiting the Taj Mahal in India, one of many international trips she enjoyed. | Facebook photo

Cathy Leyser’s loft in the old Montgomery Ward Building became the hub of her big family. Relatives from the city and suburbs came together at her equidistant home to celebrate Christmas Eve and a Mardi Gras gumbo feast. It was the ideal meeting point for expeditions to Millennium Park, the Lyric Opera and Steppenwolf Theatre. And it served as a way station for out-of-staters passing through Chicago. She welcomed them to stay a few days in her spare bedroom.

“It was like Cathy’s Airbnb for family and friends,” said her sister JoEllen McHugh. After Hurricane Katrina displaced her nephew Liam from New Orleans, he wound up staying with Ms. Leyser for nearly a year at her condo near Erie and Kingsbury, her sister said.

“She had a gazillion cousins and nephews who just adored her because she was sort of the glue of her family,” said a cousin, Cathy Lehmann.

Ms. Leyser kept up with far-flung births and deaths, distributing new family trees every few years. “She so relished knowing about her cousins and her cousins’ children and their grandchildren and their grandchildrens’ lives,” said her friend, Susan Hickman. “She kept up with almost all of them. She always went to the showers and the christenings and the weddings and the wakes. She was such a faithful person who really treasured the people in her life.”

When she organized a picnic at Millennium Park recently, she told everyone to bring whatever they wanted, saying she’d provide brownies. Instead, they arrived to find her unpacking a feast.

“Lo and behold, she brought a picnic for probably 20 people, a bottomless picnic basket that had everyone enjoying the baked chicken and a watermelon, basil and spinach salad,” said another cousin, Kevin Jackson.

Ms. Leyser, 68, died Monday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after suffering heart problems.

She retired in 2010 after 37 years with the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board. She rose to be a director, managing a large department that trained employees who assist railroad workers and their relatives seeking help with pensions, unemployment and sickness benefits. Ms. Leyser also assessed quality control and IT solutions to problems, Hickman said.

“She was all about [her] team, making sure those checks get in the mail, and when there were disability claims,” said Lehmann.

“She broke through a lot of glass ceilings,” Lehmann said. “She got her MBA from Northwestern University. She could have gone a lot of places, but she enjoyed working for the federal government.”

Ms. Leyser also was a regional president with the Federal Managers Association, a 200,000-member group of managers and executives in the U.S government, relatives said.

She volunteered at Holy Name Cathedral and Old St. Pat’s Church, bringing communion to shut-ins and helping to instruct people preparing to convert to the Roman Catholic faith. She served dinners at a Catholic Charities soup kitchen.

Young Cathy grew up in Clarendon Hills and attended high school at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park. Thanks to her father Joseph, a freight handler for United Airlines, the Leysers enjoyed travel benefits that enabled the family to go on vacations to Hawaii and Paris. “The travel bug was planted in her,” Lehmann said.

As an adult, Ms. Leyser visited China, India, South Korea and Machu Picchu in Peru. She cruised from South Africa to Singapore, and to St. Petersburg in Russia. She enjoyed a photo safari to Tanzania. “She always thought there was more to learn and more to be connected to,” Hickman said.

Ms. Leyser had planned a trip to Utah this week. She was scheduled to visit Japan in October, and Scotland and Ireland in the spring, Lehmann said.

While an undergraduate student at Mundelein College, she moved into the home of Cathy Lehmann, who was only 6 when Lehmann’s father died unexpectedly of an aneurysm in 1968. “I remember her sitting there with me and talking to me, [saying] ‘I’ll be here. I’ll never leave you,’ ” Lehmann said. “And she was really just a teenager herself. The day he died, she stayed with me at the wake. At the funeral, she said, ‘I’ll always be here, you don’t have to worry.’ ’’

In addition to her sister and scores of cousins, she is survived by her nephews Liam, Neal and Brian McHugh. Visitation is planned 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5 at Michalik Funeral Home, 1056 W. Chicago. A funeral mass is scheduled at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6, at Old St. Pat’s Church, 700 W. Adams. Burial is at Queen of Heaven Cemetery, Hillside.