Dawn Clark Netsch, 1926-2013

March 21, 2013

A law professor notable for breaking through glass ceilings has died.

Dawn Clark Netsch was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on 16 September 1926, and took a first degree at Northwestern University before graduating top of the class in the law school in 1952. She then embarked on a legal career with the Washington firm Covington & Burling (1952-54), as a clerk to Judge Julius Hoffman in the District Court (1954-56) and in private anti- trust work in Chicago (1956-61).

It was at this point that Professor Netsch moved into a political role, as chief aide to Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois (1961-65). She was the first woman to take on such a position and the first female faculty member in the law school when she returned to Northwestern as an assistant professor in 1965. She was later promoted to professor and, despite many achievements in other areas of public life, retained her links with the university for more than 45 years, still teaching a course on state and local government last year in her mid-eighties.

In the meantime, however, Professor Netsch was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1972 as a Democrat, for a period of 18 years. In 1990, she won an election for the position of Illinois Comptroller and became the highest-ranked woman in state government.

Since she had already reached retirement age, she acquired emeritus status at Northwestern and had looser connections with the university, although she returned to teaching after 1994.

However, one final political prize eluded Professor Netsch. In 1994, she won a surprise victory in the Democratic primary for Governor of Illinois, her straight-talking popular credentials established through an advertisement showing her playing pool.

As a result she joined forces with state senator Penny Severns, who became her running mate - the only occasion in the history of Illinois when two women have headed a gubernatorial campaign. Although she canvassed under the slogan “Not just another pretty face” and proposed tax increases to boost funds for education, her efforts were not enough to stem the tide of Republicans riding high across the whole country.

“Although small in size,” recalls Kimberly Yuracko, professor of law at Northwestern, Professor Netsch “would fill a room and hold everyone in rapt attention with stories about Chicago politics, jokes and, of course, advice for her beloved White Sox - all told with a twinkle in her eye and many hearty laughs.”

Professor Netsch died of Lou Gehrig’s disease on 5 March. Her husband of many years, the architect Walter Netsch, predeceased her in 2008.


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