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Stacy Oliver, a luminous personality whose encouragement gave people a boost, dead at 52

‘Stop worrying about your weight, go live, be, do,’ she wrote in her own obituary. ‘Enjoy the moment, it might not come again. Take it from me, I’m dead. Eat the danish, go to the show, laugh out loud.’

Stacy Oliver “had a way of making people see how special they were,” her husband Jeff Oliver said.
Stacy Oliver “had a way of making people see how special they were,” her husband Jeff Oliver said.
Photo by Dave Ventre

Stacy Oliver made people feel good about themselves.

She’s been doing the same thing in death. She wrote her own obituary, a life-affirming reminder to those she left behind.

“I’m not telling you what to do,” the Skokie woman wrote, “but I am telling you what to do. Stop worrying about your weight, go live, be, do. Smile, people don’t get to feel them enough. Enjoy the moment, it might not come again. If you want to do it give something a try, try it, taste it, go there. Take it from me, I’m dead. Eat the danish, go to the show, laugh out loud. Love one another and you’ll never know what you’ll find.”

Mrs. Oliver, a gifted writer, singer, improviser, jewelry-maker, stylist, decorator, baker and an aficionado of red hair and even redder lipstick, died Sunday at 52 of multiple system atrophy, a degenerative neurological disease, according to her husband Jeff.

“She was always so full of life, bubbly, effusive, funny,” he said. but MSA “took everything from her, her ability to use her hands, legs, to speak.”

He said that, when she started needing to use a communication board that tracked her eye movements to spell words, “I think her favorite phrase to me was, ‘You’re fired.’ ’

“We used to kind of crack each other up.”

Stacy and Jeff Oliver when they got engaged.
Stacy and Jeff Oliver when they got engaged.
Duron Studio Photography

He operated Riverbend recording studio and used to work in information technology. But he went back to school to study nursing, “so I’d know enough to help Stacy and understand what the doctors were going to do.”

He stopped working about 18 months ago after a difficult conversation with her doctor. “He said to me, ‘If you can, now’s the time to leave what you’re doing and be with her.’ ”

She saluted him in the obituary she wrote.

“While I’m on the topic of love and fun,” she said, “I was lucky enough to marry Jeff October 9, 1999, truly my best friend and the love of my life. He’s kind, likes a pun, has a super-distinctive laugh (he gets his giggle on every morning watching funny shows), and is so handsome (he grew his beard for me before we were married and always kept it.) He’d take me anywhere I wanted to go and went to all the events I planned. I was real with him and forever grateful that he shared his life with me.”

They’d kiddingly urge each other on to new experiences, citing the overachieving Max Fischer character played by Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson’s 1998 movie “Rushmore.”

“We used to say to each other, ‘Be Max Fischer!’ ” Jeff Oliver said.

She grew up Stacy Patinkin in West Rogers Park, where she went to Boone grade school and Mather High School. Her mother Fern Siegel was a teacher and counselor for children with learning differences, her husband said.

“She grew up with a great self image,” he said. “Her mother was very positive to her.”

As a result, Stacy “had a way of making people see how special they were.”

She studied at Second City and performed at the New York comedy club Catch a Rising Star. She sang onstage in Chicago at Buddy Guy’s Legends and in the chorus in the Lyric Opera’s 1996 production of “Un Re in Ascolto.”

She also worked at Henri Bendel’s on Michigan Avenue, where she gloried in being surrounded by makeup, scarves and jewelry, and her customers included Maya Angelou and Harrison Ford.

As Mrs. Oliver wrote: “I’ve done improv, worked at Henri Bendel when it was here, sang in clubs and cabarets, and for 21 years worked at Northwestern University. In-between for fun I made beaded jewelry, belly-danced and hula-danced, sewed, baked, did some gardening, loved participating at my Temple Beth Israel, and enjoyed plays and musicals.”

She got a journalism degree at the University of Illinois. For the last 20 or so years of her career, she worked as assistant director of Northwestern’s Center for the Writing Arts, helping organize panels and events featuring journalists, novelists and songwriters.

It wasn’t in her job description, but she also had a knack for helping people believe in themselves.

Gina DiNunzio, now a nurse-practioner, was a teenager when Mrs. Oliver became friends with her aunt Gina Berardesco and started coming to the family’s Jersey Shore vacations on Long Beach Island. “She became like another aunt to me,” DiNunzio said.

When DiNunzio fumbled for confidence, Mrs. Oliver encouraged her, she wrote on Facebook: “She had me believing that I was the most beautiful, smart, funny and interesting creature on this planet, and I think we all need people in our lives like that.”

When Oriana Schwindt was studying at Northwestern, Mrs. Oliver was her work-study adviser. About a decade ago, after a move to New York and a breakup, Schwindt said she was feeling down when Mrs. Oliver — knowing she was a big Wilco fan — invited her to volunteer at a fundraiser for her synagogue at which the Chicago band’s Jeff Tweedy would appear.

From a few feet away, “I got to see Jeff Tweedy warm up,” Schwindt said. “I got to just be there. That was a huge deal to me.

“She was the most radically kind person that I have ever met in real life,” Schwindt, who’s about to move to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting, said of Mrs. Oliver.

“Whatever problem you had, she was just buoying you up,” said Liz Conant, a musician. After a phone call with her, “You felt, ‘Oh, I’ve got a game plan.’ ’’

“She took this theater background she had,” said Emily Miller, a University of Illinois professor, “and parlayed it into promoting everybody around her.”

Stacy Oliver and her beloved dog Lulu, who died this year. When illness made her unsteady on her feet, she fell, dropping the dog’s leash. Instead of running off, “Lulu spread her legs out like a table and let Stacy pull herself up,” her husband said.
Stacy Oliver and her beloved dog Lulu, who died this year. When illness made her unsteady on her feet, she fell, dropping the dog’s leash. Instead of running off, “Lulu spread her legs out like a table and let Stacy pull herself up,” her husband said.
Tracy Germaine Sullivan / V House Photography

Mrs. Oliver’s health began to falter about 12 years ago when she was diagnosed with several autoimmune issues. She started receiving plasma treatments and writing columns for IG Living, a magazine for people undergoing immunoglobulin therapy.

The MSA diagnosis came about two and a half years ago.

“We got a nice wheelchair in September last year, but we only got to use it about 15 times because she got bed-bound,” her husband said. “We went to the Chicago Botanic Garden Night of 1,000 Jack-o’-lanterns, and she loved that.”

As illness forced her to slow down, Stacy Oliver felt a kinship with sloths and started collecting their likeness.
As illness forced her to slow down, Stacy Oliver felt a kinship with sloths and started collecting their likeness.
Provided

When she still could talk and get around, she’d muster the energy to find a friend a colorful new scarf or tell them, “You’re gorgeous.”

She once got to hold a sloth and was enchanted. Friends started bringing her stuffed sloths. Soon, she had a sloth clock and pillow. “Because she was slowing down, she kind of embraced that,” her husband said, “and we have sloths everywhere.”

Before she was buried Tuesday, a photo of her beloved pit bull Lulu was placed over Mrs. Oliver’s heart.

She also left behind her pit bull Tootsie and a new dog, a retriever named Buford that she got to comfort her husband when she was gone.

“She didn’t want me to be alone and to have more love in my life,” he said.

“It’s been a different relationship for the last year but still lovely — to know that amount of sunshine, how it feels so warm on your face.”

Stacy Oliver and Buford, a retriever she loved and that she knew would comfort her husband Jeff after she died.
Stacy Oliver and Buford, a retriever she loved and that she knew would comfort her husband Jeff after she died.
Provided