Lorraine H. Morton, who went from being a teacher, school principal and alderman to becoming Evanston’s first and only African-American mayor and also its longest serving chief executive, died over the weekend at 99.
Gracious and with a reputation for remembering the names of everyone at the Evanston Civic Center — which was renamed in her honor — “She was a marvelous mayor,” said her successor, former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl. “She was very bright, had an incredible ability to bring people together, and we all loved her.”
Ms. Morton also was the first Democrat and the second female to be elected mayor of the North Shore suburb. She served for 16 years after her 1993 win.
She had been in failing health and moved a few months ago into the Skokie home of her daughter, Elizabeth Brasher, where she died Saturday, Tisdahl said.
Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty released a statement praising her as a “teacher, mentor, and friend to so many. . . . Her life was a life worthwhile and our community is so fortunate to have had her nearly 100 years of wisdom, inspiration, and optimism shared with us so genuinely and generously.”
In addition to being Mayor Morton, “She was ‘Mama Morton’ to a lot of us,” said restaurateur Hecky Powell, owner of Hecky’s Barbecue and a former member of the District 65 School Board.
Calling her a powerful mentor to many in the city’s African-American community, he said that if any young people got into trouble, “She would call you and tell you to come to her house so she could talk to you. She’d have you over there for a two-hour lecture.”
She grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C. Her mother had 10 children, and “We were reared to be very family-oriented,” she said in an interview with the Shorefront Legacy Center. “. . . This was not a black thing, you know. This was a community thing.”
Young Lorraine came to Evanston to attend graduate school at Northwestern University, earning a master’s degree in education. In a 1957 desegregation effort, she was sent to an all-white Evanston school. “I was ‘the black teacher,’ ” she once recalled. Ms. Morton was a popular principal from 1977 to 1989 at Haven Middle School.
Ms. Morton joined the City Council in 1982, when she was appointed to finish the term of a 5th Ward alderman. Three years later she was elected alderman.
Entering politics, she had a built-in power base from supportive parents at Haven, as well as parents at the schools where she’d been a teacher: Chute, Foster and Nichols.
She pitched herself as a bridge-builder. And she had support from the Northwestern community for her opposition to a proposed tax on tuition.
As mayor, “She was a budget hawk,” Tisdahl said. “She went over the budget with great care and was opposed to higher property taxes. In a diverse community, she knew it was hardest on the people with the least money.”
Ms. Morton didn’t shy from a fight. When Chicago Ald. Bernard L. Stone built a controversial two-foot high steel divider on Howard in 1993 because of traffic from a mall on Evanston’s side of the street, she called his tactics “despicable,” and said, “I never realized that Chicago had that kind of money to throw away.”
“I didn’t allow anybody to call me a politician,” she said in an oral history film with the Shorefront Legacy Center. “I still call myself a public servant. Only a life of service is a life worthwhile.”
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two granddaughters. Visitation is planned from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday Sept. 21 at First Church of God Christian Life Center, 1524 Simpson St., Evanston. Ms. Morton’s funeral is scheduled at 11 a.m. Saturday Sept. 22 at Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Rd., Evanston.