Karen Lewis

Former CTU President Karen Lewis Dies After Years-Long Battle With Brain Cancer

The fiery Lewis was known for speaking her mind. She led the Chicago Teachers Union and its 32,000 members in a style hadn’t been seen in years

Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis passed away Sunday following a years-long battle with brain cancer, a spokesperson confirmed Monday.

"Long live the memory of Karen Lewis, who joined the ancestors last night," spokesperson Stephanie Gadlin wrote on Facebook. "She was a champion of the people. What a beautiful, funny and strong woman this was. I was honored to be her voice and back up during her tenure as president of the Chicago Teachers Union. She made it what it is today. I am so saddened right now, and I send love and light to her husband, stepchildren, grandchildren and loved ones."

Lewis, who retired from her role in CTU in 2018 to focus on her health, was first diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer, in 2015 as she was considering a run for Chicago mayor. In 2017, the one-time chemistry teacher revealed she suffered a stroke.

The fiery Lewis was known for speaking her mind. She led the Chicago Teachers Union and its 32,000 members in a style hadn’t been seen in years and tangled with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"Karen Lewis was a tough and tireless champion for public education and for Chicago’s children, one who was never afraid to fight for what she believed in," Emanuel tweeted Monday.

Lewis motivated and mobilized her teachers, first in the spring of 2011 at Grant Park, previewing the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years.

Teachers walked out for days in 2012, filling Chicago streets and using the bargaining process to force conversations on how those broader issues affected their students.

The Chicago union wasn't the first to use that strategy. But its leadership, including Lewis, acted when teachers nationwide felt unions' political power and clout had been severely weakened, said John Rogers, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Chicago was a dramatic moment, when this set of ideas coalesced and was enacted and then caught the attention of other unions," Rogers said.

In the years since the 2012 Chicago strike, teachers clad in red have flooded state Capitols in right-to-work states including West Virginia to protest years of cutbacks in school funding.

Lewis' death comes at a pivotal moment for teachers in Chicago as the union and district work to end a weekslong battle over returning to work in the coronavirus pandemic.

"May her memory be a blessing," said current CTU President Jesse Sharkey.

Although the union wouldn’t pay for it, Lewis underwent weight loss surgery in Mexico in 2018 and within months lost 100 pounds.

“It’s the quality of life,” she said following the procedure. “I feel really good.”

Besides teaching, Lewis loved the opera, spoke fluent Italian and was a gourmet cook. She always imagined she had more work to do.

In a statement, the teachers union said it was in "deep mourning."

"Karen taught us how to fight, and she taught us how to love. She was a direct descendant of the legendary Jackie Vaughn, the first Black, female president of our local," the statement read. "Both were fierce advocates for educators and children, but where Jackie was stately elegance, Karen was a brawler with sharp wit and an Ivy League education. She spoke three languages, loved her opera and her show tunes, and dazzled you with her smile, yet could stare down the most powerful enemies of public education and defend our institution with a force rarely seen in organized labor. She bowed to no one, and gave strength to tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers Union educators who followed her lead, and who live by her principles to this day."

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said "the legacy of Karen Lewis will live on and resonate our city for a long time to come - and rightfully so."

"I had the pleasure of meeting and sitting down with her once and I just remember it so vividly and feeling like I came out of that experience 'I'm very lucky to have been in her presence,'" Lightfoot said Monday. "So this is a sad day, a day of grieving for sure. But also, I think, because she left such a strong legacy. It's also an opportunity to really celebrate her life."

The union said Lewis will be "dearly missed."

"Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement," the statement read. "In 2013, she said that in order to change public education in Chicago, we had to change Chicago, and change the political landscape of our city. Chicago has changed because of her. We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen, and because she was a champion — the people's champion." 

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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