‘I got the passion for teaching and never lost it’: Karen Lewis, 1953-2021

Lewis spent years reminding us of the basic truth that every young person deserves the very best education possible, no matter their race, neighborhood or family background.

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In this photo from May 2013, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is shown with parents, labor leaders, activists and students to discuss a march against school closings.

In May 2013, CTU President Karen Lewis is shown with parents, labor leaders, activists and students discussing a march against school closings. Lewis considered a mayoral run in part due to the closings.

Jessica Koscielniak | Sun-Times

Karen Lewis took over the Chicago Teachers Union and, with a potent combination of smarts, fearlessness, humor and charisma, remade it into a political and social force to be reckoned with.

Lewis’ death, confirmed Monday, was a huge blow to the union she took over and to educators across the country for whom she became a hero.

“Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement,” the CTU said in a statement.

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Had it not been for a brain cancer diagnosis in 2014, Lewis may well have challenged Mayor Rahm Emanuel, her nemesis in union contract talks and the leader she’d gone toe-to-toe with on school closings and more.

Lewis racked up an unexpected advantage in early polling, but the challenge was not to be.

Lewis’ death is a loss for the union. It’s also a deep loss for Chicago.

No one can doubt Lewis’ deep concern for the city and its young people, particularly young people of color — all of whom, as Lewis forcefully pointed out time and again, deserve the very best education possible, regardless of neighborhood or family background.

Lewis spent years reminding us, the adults, of that basic truth. And she was unabashed about doing so, whether to a mayor, a schools CEO, a City Club luncheon crowd, a governor or state legislators.

The cliche is more than well-worn, but true nonetheless: Lewis was unafraid to “speak truth to power.”

Emanuel praised Lewis on Monday, saying she was “as wily and smart and strategic and funny and thoughtful as they come.”

What city can’t use more of that?

Lewis grew up in Hyde Park, left Kenwood Academy after her junior year to enroll at Mount Holyoke, transferred later to Dartmouth and never aspired to be a teacher. But she ended up following in her parents’ footsteps as a teacher for two decades before taking over the union in 2010. She stepped down in 2018 to focus on her health.

“I got the passion for teaching and never lost it,’’ Lewis said after a stint as a substitute teacher.

Public education in Chicago is the better for it.

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