She was the worst fears of the powers that be—a powerful Black leader who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
She was the worst fears of the powers that be—a powerful Black leader who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is. Credit: John W. Iwanski / FLICKR

It was an hour or two after I learned that Karen Lewis had died.

I was sitting at my desk feeling blue, looking out the window at another gloomy winter day in Chicago when my phone rang, and onto the caller ID popped the name—Karen.

Folks, it was like a surrealistic moment.

Could it be that she hadn’t really died? Could it be that she was just playing a prank on us? And when I clicked on the phone, I’d hear her familiar voice giving me her standard greeting: “What up, bruh?”

Alas, it was a different Karen. One I also love. Just not the legendary Karen Jennings Lewis, who I’ve been mourning.

Man, I miss her calls. Karen Lewis was many things. A great teacher. A powerful union leader. A courageous advocate for the poor and disposed.

But she was also just a great friend to talk to on the phone.

I met her years ago—when she was a science teacher at Lane Tech. She loved theater. As such, she volunteered to help run the lights for a student production directed by an English teacher named Randy Bates, an old friend of mine.

You gotta meet Karen, Randy told me. You’re gonna love her.

Randy was right. When she met me, she said—you’re the guy writing all those TIF articles!

And she gave me a big kiss.

First time anyone’s ever kissed me for writing TIF articles, that’s for sure.

Karen was funny. And wise. And smart. Really smart. I think she knew everything. Opera. Theater. Books. Tennis (she loved Roger Federer). And movies. She used to work in a video store back in the 1980s. 

OK, she didn’t know or care much about basketball. Which is sort of funny. ’Cause her husband, John Lewis, coached the basketball team at Lane Tech.

On top of it all, she could sniff out bullshit from a mile away.

As a matter of fact, I wish she were around today, if only to hear the wonderful things her old enemies have been saying about her in the last few hours.

It would be that scene from Tom Sawyer—where Tom gets to watch his own funeral.

Rahm said what about me? She’d be laughing her ass off.

’Cause here’s the deal—back in real time. When Karen was in all her glory. Wearing red. Rallying teachers. Leading them into the streets. Calling Rahm “the murder mayor.” Using her status to shine a spotlight on all the crooked deals and injustices of this city. Standing up for teachers and poor kids in poor schools . . .

Man, the powers that be hated her. She was their worst fears come to life—a powerful Black leader who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is.

On top of that, Karen was a big woman. As in . . . heavyset.

Sometimes she’d read me the things people wrote about her. The nasty shit of twisted minds.

I don’t want to belabor this, ’cause I’ll probably get in trouble for saying it, but . . .

There’s a certain type of white person—generally a well-to-do north-side woman who’s in great shape—who cannot stand big women. Especially heavyset women who aren’t afraid to take center stage and tell the world what they think.

I can’t tell you how many north-siders have told me—in this patronizing voice—Ben, I know you like her. But you have to agree that the teachers could have picked a better representative, at least just for the sake of how she looks on TV.

You don’t have to be a genius to read between the lines to see what they’re really saying.

In addition, Karen was standing up for teachers. People have conflicting attitudes toward teachers. They might love them when they’re meek, mild, and doing whatever the mayor tells them.

But take a stand? Rally in the loop? Go on strike? How dare they! What about “the children”?

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if people always cared about “the children”? As opposed to only caring about them when teachers go on strike.

Karen didn’t seem too bothered by the nasty things people said about her. By the time she got elected president of the union in 2010, she was already well into her 50s. She had a lifetime of experience—nearly 30 years in the classroom teaching high school science at Sullivan, Lane Tech, and King.

She wasn’t looking to cozy up to power to advance her career.

She certainly wasn’t looking to get elected mayor.

But she couldn’t stand how Mayor Rahm was leading this city.

She tried to talk Toni Preckwinkle into running against Rahm. But Toni chickened out. So Karen launched a campaign.

This was back in the summer of 2014. She set up a series of meetings around town to raise money and generate interest, called them “conversations with Karen.”

The first one was in a banquet hall in Beverly. Place was packed with teachers, firefighters, and yes, cops.

Afterward, I was giddy with excitement. I really thought she was gonna mop the floor with Rahm . . .

Well, you know what happened. She got brain cancer and had to drop out.

She endorsed Jesus Garcia. But he wasn’t ready. And corporate Chicago—President Obama included—rallied around Rahm. He got reelected. And then a few months later everyone woke up to realize he’d been hiding evidence of the Laquan McDonald murder.

In 2018, Karen stepped down from the union. Her health got worse. But every now and then, she’d call.

Her brain was sharp. Her memory intact. We’d talked politics, tennis, movies—pretty much anything but basketball.

Hold it. This just in. The Chicago Tribune editorial board just weighed in with a tribute to Karen.

You hear that, Karen? The fucking Tribune. The one that once compared your union to the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un.

You gotta laugh to keep from crying. And even then the tears still fall.

I saw the same thing happen with Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King.

They love you when you’re not around. Not so much when you are.

Rest in peace, my friend.  v