Passing Note: Chips Cashed In

She loved life the way some people love poker. No matter how it works out this time, the NEXT hand is always going to win the jackpot. Even if everybody else at the table is cheating, you’re smart enough to win anyhow.

Among memorable volunteers, easily one of the most memorable has been Kathy Lewis, or, as she preferred to sign herself, Katherine D. Lewis, MBA. She it was who insisted I get business cards, so she could leave them at garage sales all over northern Illinois. (She assumed I was just joking every time I said we didn’t want to drive sixty miles for garage sale leftovers.) She modeled a forty year-old fur jacket for us at a Very Merry Bazaar (and was herself not sure whether it was the age of the jacket or the age of the model that kept it from selling.) If you came to the Very Merry Bazaar on the right days, she was the one who rushed up to you every time you looked at our merchandise. “You’ll love that!” she’d cry. “You buy that and you’ll be a happy camper!”

She will do so never again. For reasons not yet clear to me, the mighty MBA passed away at her home last week. No doubt she felt the world had cheated her one last time: she had huge plans for the weekend.

She was a spiritual descendant of Daniel Burnham, who told Chicagoans “Make No Small Plans.” There was always something doing: having successfully lobbied the national P.G. Wodehouse Society into holding its triennial national convention in Chicago in 2013, she saw it succeed beyond expectations. For 2014 and 2015, she was planning her syndicated radio show, a seminar on Chicago jazz at the Newberry, a seminar on P.G. Wodehouse AND Chicago jazz at the Newberry, a field trip to England that would expose Chicagoans to the last bastions of REAL jazz, and another of her perennial lawsuits, which was going to earn her enough money to live in the manner to which she wished to become accustomed.

Thing is: anybody can make plans. No one ever quite executed them like Katherine D. Lewis, MBA. To the Daniel Burnham base, she added more than a touch of Auntie Mame. This is a woman, oh Cajun cannoli, who kept a serape by a second-story window in her house all winter. See, the dining room had a flat roof; too much snow could bring it down. More than once, she startled her neighbors by stepping out onto the roof in the night, wearing that serape and shoveling for all she was worth. (Yes, she wore something under the serape. As a matter of fact she had her “woolies” on under what was under the serape. And, by the way, she liked to point out that her woolies were made of silk. NO one ever thought to do things the way Kathy Lewis did them.)

There was so much drive and energy in her that no one quite believes yet she COULD die. She pushed that radio program so long and hard to so many buyers that she had them quite worn out before ever they heard her sample CDs (one reason you never heard it on the radio). She worked like a dog setting up her sections every year at the Book Fair, complaining every single minute. (We’ve had people who complained more and worked less.) Some of the layout of the Book Fair existed to create a buffer zone between Kathy Lewis and the volunteers who would go berserk to hear one more complaint about her bad back. Her appetite for legal trouble exhausted more than one lawyer, like the one who snapped, “I will not change your will one more time this week!”

When, as usually happened, one of her schemes blew up in her face, she would just sigh, “Lucky Cecil” and start on the next one. Increasing back pain (did I mention her bad back? She did), money worries, rejection: they only added excitement to the game. NEXT time, everybody would play according to the rules, and she’d win.

She loved life the way some people who stink at poker love to say, “Come on, deal!” Those of us who watched her play will remember her style long after we’ve forgotten who won.

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