Dona Gerson’s diminutive stature and youthful pixie-like haircut could not disguise the magnitude of her civic activism, her appetite for politics, or her enthusiasm for lifelong learning. Ms. Gerson (nee Penner), former Ninth Ward Alderman, Library Trustee, and Evanston resident for 51 years, died suddenly at her Mather Lifeways residence on July 10. She was 82 years old and had recently celebrated 61 years of marriage to her husband, Stan Gerson.
Both Dona and Stan Gerson were born and raised in Akron, Ohio, but built and feathered their nest in south Evanston. Ms. Gerson was pre-deceased by her brother Ronald but survived by her husband and two children, Michael Gerson and Lisa Gerson.
“I met Dona through an introduction by my younger brother,” said Stan Gerson. “We hit it off, and she was about 21 when we got married. She had started law school at Case Western Reserve and was doing very well her first year – before love and marriage intervened. For about four years she taught fourth grade in Akron, and I practiced dentistry.” Then each took a career detour and left Akron for Chicago, and finally Evanston. “I got a Ph.D. in oral pathology and became an academic, and Dona went back to school and then had a variety of enterprises. She was kind of fearless at trying new things,” Mr. Gerson said.
When the Gersons were in their 40s, they spent a year in London during Mr. Gerson’s sabbatical from University of Illinois at Chicago. “It was during that year that Dona was exposed to a radio show that interested her,” he said. “When we returned to Chicago, she wrote a letter to WBEZ Radio and proposed a similar format. … For about a year she hosted a short program featuring interesting content from current magazine articles. “
“Dona was proficient in so many ways,” said Sandy Gross, Evanston’s City Clerk from 1977 to1985 and one of Ms. Gerson’s closest friends. “We met 50 years ago while working on the North Shore Summer Project, an open housing initiative, and we deepened our friendship through involvement with the League of Women Voters.” Ms. Gross said her friend was a vocal supporter of Evanston’s school integration initiative and also served on Evanston’s Zoning Board of Appeals. The League of Women Voters was a training ground for politically astute and community-driven women; with that tutelage and friends’ encouragement , Ms. Gerson ran for and won the Ninth Ward aldermanic race, serving 1979-83.
Mr. Gerson and many friends recalled Ms. Gerson’s passion for politics. “She was a political junkie,” he laughed. “She listened to and watched political talk shows, read a lot, and was totally informed politically.” Ms. Gerson’s longtime friend, Baila Miller, said she was an “avid follower of politics and knew lots more than any of the rest of us.”
Ms. Gerson stuck her toe in the water of county politics when in 1978 she became Administrative Assistant to Commissioner Joanne Alter at the Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. After some years, Ms. Gerson became a management analyst at the Chicago Metropolitan Sanitary District, retiring in 1993.
Ms. Gerson’s appointment as a Trustee of the Evanston Public Library was good fortune for Evanston. She served two terms, beginning in February 2005. She advocated for the South Branch Library, championing evening hours, renovation of the aging Chicago Avenue facility, and building a robust Friends of the South Branch Library. She was also a level-headed voice during the Youth Service Renovation Project of 2009 and as the library transitioned to a separate tax-levying district.
“Dona was a gracious and involved trustee,” said Paul Gottschalk, assistant director of the Library. “She was a lovely person and cared deeply about Evanston.”
Another devoted friend, Nancy Bashook, called Ms. Gerson a “big-time doer, someone who didn’t want to miss out on anything. She did it all, and with gusto.” Friends recounted exhaustive lists of Ms. Gerson’s interests and activities: She attended classes at Northwestern University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and became a coordinator. She was passionate about Stephen Sondheim musicals, her Thursday walking group, political rallies, water aerobics and yoga, her Chug (friendship group) at Beth Emet Synagogue, the monthly beer and popcorn meetings with former aldermanic friends, family camping trips, travels with her “Quintessentials” (girlfriends), community fundraisers, foreign travel with her husband, and her North Shore Village Friday Night Short Story group.
“Dona was social, and she also loved learning,” said Ms. Bashook. “She had strong political views but never imposed them on anyone or made others feel defensive about their own views. Her friendship was one of the best things that ever happened to me – and to my husband, Phil.”
A memorial service is being planned for some time in the near future.
By Judy Chiss