Sharon Gist Gilliam, who grew up stocking shelves in her parents’ store, commuted to college by CTA and taught in city high schools, rose to be an unflappable, integral troubleshooter in five Chicago mayoral administrations.
Known for her fiscal savvy, she was city budget director for Mayor Harold Washington and the chief operating officer for Mayor Eugene Sawyer. After chairing the CHA board for several years, she became CEO in 2006 under Mayor Richard M. Daley. There, she helped oversee a massive, controversial $1.6 billion plan to demolish CHA high-rises and replace them with scattered-site, mixed-income housing.
Earlier, she worked as the city’s consumer services commissioner for Mayor Michael Bilandic. She first joined City Hall while Mayor Richard J. Daley was in charge, landing a job in the late 1960s with the Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity.
In total, she served six mayors. Before going to work for Mayor Washington, she was a budget officer in Washington, D.C., in the administration of Mayor Marion Barry.
“I like government service,” she once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It is the one place where you can truly make a difference and you can see the difference you make.”
Ms. Gilliam, 76, died Sunday at the Symphony of Lincoln Park, an assisted living facility. She had been in failing health, according to her sister Vivian Spencer.
“She was a force who rose in city government when very few people of color did, and used her power to help those in most need,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted. “My prayers are with her family.”
She grew up the oldest of three sisters in the West Chesterfield and Lawndale neighborhoods, her sister said. Her father, Arthur C. Gist, came north from Dallas to Chicago, where he met her mother, the former Vivian M. Montgomery.
Together, they opened several grocery stores on the South and West sides. Their first was at 13th and Springfield.
Later, they operated Vivian’s Lounge, a corner tavern near Roosevelt and Pulaski. They also owned the apartments above the lounge. After the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., her father stayed up during the nights of unrest that followed to guard his store, her sister said.
“I grew up working in a grocery store . . . as a little kid, you stocked the lower shelves,” Ms. Gilliam once told The HistoryMakers. “Then, you could add stuff up on the adding machine and learn to use the cash register . . . me and my sisters, we didn’t know from hanging out. You know, there was work to be done.”
“You may have been a teenager, but if he or my mother weren’t there, you may have been 15 years old, 16 years old, you were in charge, responsible and accountable for that store,” she said in the oral history. “You supervised whatever employee who was there. You may have been 15 and they were 45, but I mean, it was up to you to see that they were there, they were doing what they were supposed to be doing.”
Young Sharon loved the family mutt, Charlie. Growing up, she enjoyed music by Donald Byrd and Ramsey Lewis. “She liked jazz, which I thought was pretty cool,” her sister said.
She excelled at Burnside grade school and St. Mary High School, which was operated by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary [BVMs]. “She always gave great credit to the nuns,” said Gary T. Johnson, president of the Chicago History Museum, where Ms. Gilliam was the first African American — and the first woman — to chair the board of trustees.
She continued her education at a BVM institution, Mundelein College, commuting to Rogers Park by CTA from the family home at 21st and Karlov.
After graduating in 1965, she taught history at Farragut and Harlan high schools. And she studied public management at DePaul University.
In 1973, she married Russell Gilliam, whom she met at Rainbow Beach, said Darnetta Tyus, a friend and former employee.
“She was a financial and a tactical genius,” Tyus said. “Many African American careers in Chicago were born out of her efforts.”
“She just was a wonderful person. She was honest. She didn’t play favorites. She knew her stuff,” said Judson H. Miner, corporation counsel under Mayors Washington and Sawyer. “She was consistent and thorough and trustworthy.What she told you was factual and accurate.”
“She was a true, nationally recognized expert on municipal finance,” said Johnson.
In 1989, Ms. Gilliam became the first woman to receive the Marks of Excellence award from the Washington, D.C.-based National Forum for Black Public Administrators.
She co-founded the consulting firm Unison in 1989, Tyus said. It later became Unison-Maximus. She remained there until 2008.
Ms. Gilliam is survived by her sister Vivian Spencer and many cousins. Her husband and her sister Myra died before she did. Visitation is scheduled at 11 a.m. Saturday, followed by a noon memorial service at Unity Funeral Parlors, 4114 S. Michigan.