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Wilmette preschool teacher Diane Dudek dies at 73; mom of 6, grandmother of 9

Diane Dudek and her husband Mitch | Provided

Diane Dudek had a rocking chair in her kitchen that her children called her throne. She fed them and rocked them and read them stories there, and did the same when her grandchildren came along.

She kept a full fridge to welcome anyone who dropped in. When her boys played hockey, she’d feed entire teams of hungry athletes with her hearty spaghetti pie. Then, they’d fall on her chocolate chip cookies. The recipe was a secret, but everyone agreed the decadent treats had to be loaded with extra butter and chocolate.

Her porch was homey, with comfy chairs and blankets to snuggle under if it turned nippy.

“I’d call and say, ‘Do you want a porch date?’” recalled Jane Schmiege. “And she’d say, ‘Bring your Diet Coke.’ You always felt special in her presence.”

Schmiege was among many women who turned to her for friendship and advice. A preschool teacher who’d grown up the second oldest of 11 siblings, Mrs. Dudek knew how to tame a roomful of 2-year-olds with paints and crafts. Then she might read them “Madeline” or “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Mrs. Dudek’s children read her those books when she was in hospice care. Her husband Mitch made sure some of her favorite music was playing, by the group Celtic Woman. A Wilmette resident, she died of breast cancer Friday at Evanston Hospital. She was 73.

“She loved being a mother. She loved being a homemaker. She loved cooking,” said friend Patti Bellock.

Diane grew up in River Forest, the daughter of Mary and Donald Carroll, owner of Carroll Metals. She went to St. Luke’s grade school and Trinity High School.

She enjoyed going for ice cream at Petersen’s and swimming in the family pool.

As a young woman, she took flying lessons. “She goes up in the air and the throttle comes off in her hand,” her husband said. Cool under pressure, “She put the throttle back on and landed the plane.”

Mrs. Dudek studied psychology at Seton Hall University and earned a master’s degree in early childhood education from what is now National Louis University.

After college, she and Bellock drove the continent of Europe for four months. They wound up in the former Czechoslovakia, searching for a shrine to the Infant of Prague. One night at dinner, they thought the imperious soldiers raucously offering up toasts at a nearby table “looked like a scene from a World War II movie,” Bellock said. Later they realized they were sitting next to Russian fighters, brought in to quash the thawing of Communism known as the Prague Spring.

Diane was a 5-foot-tall Head Start teacher at Willa Cather school in Chicago when she met 6-foot-4 inch Mitch Dudek – a former NFL player with the New York Jets – at the Some Other Place pub in Rosemont.

That night she told her sisters, “I’ve met the man I’m going to marry.”

“She was very smart and very loving,” her husband said. They wed in 1972.

Mrs. Dudek worked as a teacher at Trinity Church Nursery School in Wilmette and, for almost 20 years, as a preschool teacher and librarian at St. Joseph School in Wilmette.

Diane Dudek (center) with her family. | Provided
Diane Dudek (center) with her family. | Provided

Highly organized, for years she ran the rummage sale at St. Francis Xavier Church in Wilmette. “You didn’t see Diane without a spiral notebook,” which she’d use to record appointments and to-do lists, said friend and fellow rummage organizer Jodi Weschler.

When Weschler was a young mom, she panicked when she realized she’d mistakenly signed her son up for figure skating instead of hockey. Classes were filled, and she worried he’d be stuck doing something he’d hate.

Mrs. Dudek stepped in. “She picked up the phone and said, ‘My friend has signed up her son for figure skating and he wants to be a hockey player. Can you make room for him?’” Weschler recalled. “They said ‘Of course, Mrs. Dudek.’”

At Easter, she’d boil 12 dozen eggs so the grandkids could dye as many as they wanted. At Christmas, she took out milk cartons she’d been saving. The kids and adults would decorate them with graham crackers, icing and candies to make “gingerbread” houses.

“She had the imagination a teacher of young children should have,” Bellock said. “She saw through the eyes of a child.”

The Dudeks enjoyed summer vacations near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where they’d rent a house that slept 25 to squeeze in all the kids, in-laws and grandkids.

Once, when some of her grandchildren jostled to leave a dinner table, she encouraged them to remain seated and ask each other about school. “She was teaching them how to have a conversation,’’ Schmiege said. To tease her, “Her adult children got up and started running around the table.”

Mrs. Dudek knitted, quilted and wore pretty scarves.

She is survived by her daughters Elizabeth Jensen and Kate Kerwin; sons Rock, Mitch, Michael and John Dudek; sisters Mary Beth Connelley, Trish Duffy, Suzanne Grace, Sally Anton, Alice Tracy and Katy Carroll; brothers Donald, Michael and Walter Carroll; and nine grandchildren.

Visitation is planned 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday May 1 at Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. A funeral mass is scheduled at 10 a.m. Thursday May 2 at St. Francis Xavier Church, 9th and Linden, Wilmette.