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Joan Small, Chicago cultural affairs deputy who helped organize Cows on Parade, dead at 78

Mayor Lori Lightfoot called Mrs. Small ‘a great public servant’ and said she was ‘my friend, mentor and constant source of support. She was a true Chicagoan to her core.’

Joan Small.
Joan Small.
Provided

Joan Small started her professional life as a social worker but felt she had to pull back because “she wanted to bring everyone home,” said her sister Maxine Leftwich.

She wound up becoming deputy chief of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, where she helped organize music festivals, the Sister Cities program and special events like the hugely popular Cows on Parade. She was the No. 2 to Lois Weisberg, the city’s legendary cultural affairs commissioner.

“Lois would have these incredible ideas, and Joan would execute them,” her sister said. “She would call Joan on a Sunday night: ‘I had this great idea.’ Joan would say, ‘OK, Lois, how’re we going to pay for it?’ ”

Mrs. Small’s family is planning a memorial next year after her death in June at her home in La Quinta, California, where she’d retired. She had a heart attack at 78, her sister said.

She hadn’t been the same since the November death of her husband of 57 years, advertising executive Lynn Small.

“The doctor described it as a broken heart,” her sister said.

Joan Small with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Joan Small with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Provided

Mayor Lori Lightfoot called Mrs. Small “a great public servant” and said she was “my friend, mentor and constant source of support. She was a true Chicagoan to her core.”

“She understood the importance of culture as both a unifying force but also as a means to prod and push a city to be fairer and inclusive,” said former Chicagoan Lonnie G. Bunch III, who runs the Smithsonian Institution. “She was a power who was so generous and kind. When I became president of what was then the Chicago Historical Society, Joan embraced me, helped me understand the unique relationship between the cultural, corporate and political communities and schooled me on the wonders and the challenges of Chicago.”

“She was a bridge between the many communities of Chicago,” said Beth Sonnenschein, a fellow member of the Know Your Chicago committee, which works with the University of Chicago on lectures and tours to promote civic engagement.

Joan Small with Michelle Obama.
Joan Small with Michelle Obama.
Provided

Actress-playwright Regina Taylor praised Mrs. Small’s encouragement of artists, recalling the premiere at the Goodman Theatre of her play “Crowns,” an exuberant show about Black identity and resilience told through women and their regal hats.

“She wore an amazing hat, and it was a beautiful evening,” Taylor said.

Mrs. Small grew up on the South Side, where she read her parents’ almanac and encyclopedias for fun and went to Sexton grade school and Hirsch High School.

Joan Small when she was a baby with mother Ella Flemings.
Joan Small when she was a baby with mother Ella Flemings.
Provided

Her mother Ella was a teacher. Her father Amos Flemings worked for General Motors, where he hand-lettered names and numbers on locomotives.

Her parents were champion bridge players. In the mid-1930s, her mother and her playing partner were said to be the first two women to win a national American Bridge Association tournament.

Joan Small with her father Amos Flemings,
Joan Small with her father Amos Flemings.
Provided

At the card table, where her father would sit his three daughters on his knee, young Joan would ask questions about bridge and was a quick study. Later in life, she met her husband at Roosevelt University, where both were bridge-playing students.

Joan and Lynn Small.
Joan and Lynn Small.
Provided

After graduating with a degree in political science, Mrs. Small was a social worker for the Cook County Department of Public Aid, working in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing complex. She then worked for United Charities of Chicago before moving to the Department of Cultural Affairs in 1987. She retired in 2004.

Mrs. Small was especially proud of her work on Chicago’s Sister Cities program, promoting trade and cultural ties.

“She traveled around a lot to other cities around the world,” Sonnenschein said. “It enhanced our visibility.”

An elegant dresser, she favored Jean-Louis Scherrer fragrance.

“She had beautiful silver hair, and she liked to wear it pulled back, and it was always very striking,” said Denise B. Gardner, a friend who’s a retired marketing executive. “She always had interesting jewelry that she’d bought in some exotic place.”

The Smalls were supporters of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and enjoyed going to the Ravinia Festival, where she once dined with South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela before a performance. She belonged to the women’s volunteer service organization Links, Inc. and The National Smart Set women’s social group.

Mrs. Small lived In Hyde Park for 40 years. She and her husband owned and loved schnauzers and a Manx cat given to them by Max Robinson, the first Black co-anchor of a network news show.

From 1994 to 2008, she was on the board of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit arts promoter.

“She was a strong, positive force for diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Robert L. Lynch, the organization’s chief executive officer, posted online.

In addition to Maxine Leftwich, Mrs. Small’s survivors include another sister, Eunita Johnson.