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It was not by accident that the more than 700 mourners left smiling after the funeral of Evanston’s beloved mayor, Lorraine Hairston Morton. As they left the Alice Millar Chapel on Sept. 24, her family, friends, colleagues and admirers went out smiling and singing “Oh, Happy Day” along with the Second Baptist Church choir. Of course, it was a happy day. That is how Mayor Morton planned it.
She chose the music, the speakers and the venue. She even told the clergy to keep it short. “Do it in 90 minutes. Don’t keep these people all day,” she told them. Even so, the event ran well over two hours.
The service could have easily been longer. “If I said all I wanted, it’d be like the Aretha Franklin funeral,” local restaurant owner Hecky Powell told the crowd.
Mrs. Morton’s daughter, nieces and cousins – representing a large contingent of Hairston and Morton family members – recalled her as a loving mother and aunt, especially strong on giving advice – a habit she excelled at despite the fact that too much advice pushed her to Evanston in the first place. In a 2008 interview, she explained she chose Northwestern University for graduate school because it was so far from home: ”I was the youngest in my family. Everyone was older than me and bossing me around, telling me what to do. I wanted to be grown.”
Second Baptist’s senior pastor, Reverend Dr. Michael C. R. Nabors, officiated at the funeral with soaring music by the Second Baptist choir. The eulogy was given by Mrs. Morton’s cousin, Rev. Larry S. Bullock, senior pastor at Living Faith Cathedral Worship Center Church. Besides family members, Mrs. Morton chose four speakers, three Evanston mayors and Mr. Powell.
They had a lot to talk about, because Mrs. Morton reached into every corner of Evanston life. For 36 years she served as a teacher and principal in Evanston-Skokie School District 65. She served in city government for 25 years, first as a Fifth Ward alderman for nine years and then as mayor, 1993-2009. She was the City’s first African American and the first Democrat to serve as mayor. She was 74 years old at the time, an age when most people have already retired, but Mrs. Morton went on to be re-elected three more times. Her 16 years on the job made her the longest serving mayor in City history.
“Lorraine is, was and always will be my mayor,” said Elizabeth Tisdahl, a long-time friend, who succeeded Mrs. Morton as Evanston’s mayor.
“Lorraine always told me, ‘Don’t write a speech, do it extemporaneously, something will come to you,’ she said, ‘but when it’s really important, write it down. I wrote it down today.’
The help Mrs. Morton gave her was enormous and varied, particularly when she was first in office. Mayor Tisdahl remembered leaving a question on Mrs. Morton’s answering machine. When she called back, Ms. Tisdahl said she got her answer and a laugh, because “Lorraine asked, ‘Are you sitting down? Then turn around. See the black binders. The answer you want is in the third binder.’”
Mayor Tisdahl recalled going to a Metra district meeting about the safety of railroad bridges. The meeting’s chair told Ms. Tisdahl that Mayor Morton had already “made us check every bridge in Evanston.” When she got home, Ms. Tisdahl said, “I called Lorraine. I told her she rocked, and she just said, ‘Oh, Liz, no one knows what you do in that job.’”
Former Mayor James Lytle explained “how Lorraine got into politics.” He needed to fill a vacancy in the City Council when a Fifth Ward Alderman resigned. As he searched for a likely candidate, he said, Mrs. Morton’s name kept cropping up.
So he called and went over to her house. She had her principal’s game face on, because she figured he came to talk about how she recently disciplined his son, a Haven student. Mayor Lytle listened, and when she finally stopped, he told her, “That’s not why I came. I want you to be the Fifth Ward Alderman.“
“And here’s the amazing thing,” Mayor Lytle said, “Lorraine was speechless.” A full minute went by, he said, before she blurted out, “I’m not a politician.” He assured her, “You don’t have to be. Just do what you’ve been doing all your life. Just do it in a different venue.”
Until the end of her life, she liked to say she was not a politician but a public servant.
MS. Morton took the job as alderman and became a great one-on-one advisor to Mr. Lytle. “When I was mayor,” he said, “she told me what to do. When I was a banker, she’d tell me where to put the next branch.”
As mayor, she was a builder, he said, and pointed to the skyscrapers that went up and to the 22 acres downtown at Church and Maple now occupied by a hotel, Century Theatres, a high-rise apartment building, stores and restaurants. Other developments during her tenure as mayor include the Whole Foods complex, the new Mather Homes, the mixed-use Sherman Plaza, the Levy Center and new fire stations.
“She also built relationships,” Mr. Lytle said, crediting her excellent work with faith communities and the business community as well as her successful efforts to strengthen the City’s fragile relationship with Northwestern.
Current Mayor Stephen Hagerty recalled meeting Mrs. Morton for the first time. He and his wife were surprised they had the winning bid at an auction. The prize was a dinner with the mayor. The real surprise, he said, was that this 80-something mayor brought her boyfriend along for what turned out to be a very special evening at Pete Miller’s Steak and Seafood.
In 2016, when he was considering a run for mayor, Mr. Hagerty sought Mrs. Morton’s advice. Among the many things she advised was to “never be afraid of progress and change.”
She was “genuine, direct and had opinions she didn’t hesitate to express,” but she always did it with humor and charm, he said, even if it meant a chat could turn into hours. He referred to the Maya Angelou quote, that people do not remember what you said or did, but they do remember how you made them feel. Lorraine Morton, he said, made people feel good.
That is what former trouble-makers remember, too, Hecky Powell said at the chapel. “She loved us bad boys, recognizing something good in us even though we didn’t recognize it,” he said. He remembers being called to “Mama” Morton’s house” where she’d “sit you down and have a discussion with you, offer you a coke or iced tea. She’d let you talk a little and after that, she knew you were lying, so she’d cut you off right there.”
If the problem was serious, he said, she might also offer dessert, which meant you would be there for two hours. She always asked why you did it, and then she’d say “You will never do it again.” He didn’t do it again but mostly, he admitted, because “you didn’t want to be back over there again.”
Mr. Powell, a former District 65 School Board member, said, “Mama Morton shaped me, me and others like me.”
Lorraine Morton was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., the youngest of nine children; a tenth sibling died very young. In 1938 Mrs. Morton earned a teaching degree at Winston-Salem Teachers College, now a state university whose motto fits Mrs. Morton to a ‘T’: “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.”
She first came to Evanston in 1941 to earn a master’s degree in education at Northwestern University. The very first week, she met her future husband, James T. Morton, at the Emerson Street YMCA. They married at the end of 1941 and by 1942, when they both had their graduate degrees in hand, he was drafted into the Air Force. They spent the next years at Tuskegee, Ala. and other military posts across the South.
It wasn’t until 1953 that they came back to Evanston, James Morton’s home town. They lived at 1200 Darrow Ave. on the corner of Simpson, where lilac blooms lined the Simpson side every spring. Mr. Morton was a psychologist working at Downey Veterans’ Administration Hospital and Mrs. Morton was a school teacher in Evanston-Skokie District 65.
No, she did not break the color barrier as the first African American teacher in the district. She taught at Foster School, joining a core of African American teachers already there. She taught English and social studies at mostly Black schools. During the mid-1950s, she even taught summer school twice at the all-white Haven School, a novelty for a Black teacher back then.
Mrs. Morton’s breakthrough came in 1957, when she was assigned to Nichols Junior High, not for summer school and not for gym class, but as a year-long classroom teacher. That was an Evanston first – becoming the first Black classroom teacher outside of Foster School.
Her next assignment came 10 years later, in 1967, when she moved to Chute Junior High to teach and head the new team-teaching program. The school was named for her mentor, Oscar M. Chute, the longtime superintendent of District 65, 1951-66. He paved the way for desegregating Evanston schools, a process that started in 1967 under a new superintendent, Gregory Coffin.
When Dr. Coffin was pushed out in 1970, Mrs. Morton joined a spirited campaign to keep him. That campaign, involving Black and White residents from all over the City, failed to bring him back, but it introduced her to many local activists, including Alice Kreiman, who became a steadfast friend. “The Coffin coalition of Blacks and Whites created friendships that existed long afterward,” Mrs. Morton said. “It was the first inter-racial mixing in homes.”
The campaign’s lessons stuck with her. Years later, when people wanted to run for office, they would seek the support of Mrs. Morton and Mrs. Kreiman. “But before Alice and I would commit to supporting them, we’d ask ourselves where had they stood on the Coffin issue,” Mrs. Morton recalled. “It was kind of a litmus test.”
In 1974, Mrs. Morton’s husband passed away. Their daughter was still a high school senior. Mrs. Morton said she planned to stay at Chute until retirement. Instead, a few years later, she was persuaded to take on troubled Haven Middle School. After a revolving door of principals had left Haven in disarray, Supt. Joe Hill had plenty of applicants for the job but no one he thought could handle it. Dist. 65 board member Rachel Golden urged Mrs. Morton to apply.
She got the job. And, no, she was not the first black principal in Dist. 65. Clara Pate was the first at College Hill in 1971 and Bessie Rhodes the second at Miller School in 1972.
On her arrival at Haven in 1977, “Lorraine just turned that school around,” said Muriel Chalem, her longtime secretary there. “She was a straight-talker, to students, teachers and parents. She had boundless energy and a knack for getting the best out of people.”
She stayed as Haven’s principal for 12 years, retiring in 1989, but not until she changed the culture and became famous as the dancing principal for her role in the PTA’s new annual program, Haven Help Us.
As principal, Mrs. Morton’s first rule was “no fighting.” As mayor, she said she sometimes wished she could invoke that same rule, often wondering how much could get done if those on opposite sides of an issue “just stopped arguing and started working together.” Many of her skills as a principal crossed over to her work as mayor, serving and satisfying different constituencies seemingly working toward the same goal but often at odds.
Larry Suffredin, Cook County commissioner, once put it succinctly: Mayor Morton “is the principal of Evanston.”
Evanston is lucky to have the 2018 video, “Lorraine Morton, A Life Worthwhile,” created by Dino Robinson of Shorefront Legacy Center, Steve and Genie Lemieux-Jordan of Evanston Photographic Studios and the Shorefront team. The video will remind everyone of her verve and passion for people and especially for the people of Evanston. It shows Mrs. Morton in her late 90s, still sharp and funny and feisty.
The video is ‘SO Lorraine” said Fay Godman, a former Haven PTA member, in a letter to the editor of the Evanston RoundTable. “SO Lorraine,” she said, “except for the fact that audiences don’t get a repeat performance of Haven Help Us featuring the dancing school principal, showing some leg and lots of her typical sparkle.”
Mayor Morton passed away at age 99 on Sept. 8 at the home of her daughter Elizabeth Brasher and her two granddaughters, Elizabeth and Constance. She was a deacon at Second Baptist Church and a life-time NAACP member. She belonged to LINKS, Inc. and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She also served on numerous Northwestern committees and had a scholarship established in her name at both her alma maters, Northwestern and Winston-Salem.
In 2009 at her last City Council meeting, the council surprised her by naming the building she helped save from the wrecking ball, the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center.
She died only three months before her 100th birthday. Mayor Lytle regretted not being able to toast her at that December milestone, so he toasted her at the memorial, saying, “Here’s to the most impactful mayor in 150 years!”
Mayor Morton’s casket was covered with pink roses. Burial was at Sunset Cemetery in Glenview.
Elizabeth and members of the Morton family, Mayor Tisdahl, Mayor Lytle, and honored guests. We come here today to celebrate the life of a remarkable woman.
Mayor Morton loved bringing people together, and today, looking at this chapel filled with so many wonderful people from all over our community, I know she’s happy to have brought Evanston together one more time. I also know she’d be delighted that her funeral occurred immediately after 2,000 NU Freshman marched through the arch.
Even though we were blessed to have Lorraine with us for nearly a century, it doesn’t make this day any easier. All of those who were fortunate enough to spend time with her over the last 99 years—family, friends, students, colleagues – know what a special person she was, and what a terrible loss this is for our community. But being the incredibly positive, optimistic person that she was, Mayor Morton would want us to move forward.
There’s a wonderful saying attributed to Maya Angelou, “People don’t remember what you did or said, they remember how you made them feel.” Mayor Morton personified that expression. You always felt good being in her presence.
She was genuine. She was direct. She had an opinion, which she didn’t hesitate to share. But most of all, she cared about you and what you had to say. She cared so much, in fact, that a quick chat could often turn into a two-hour conversation. If you were in a hurry, she’s the last person you’d want to bump into.
Lorraine was an active, engaged, energetic, and vibrant person—and that comes from me, someone who only got to know her in her late 90s.
My wife Lisa and I met her for the first time when we won the opportunity to have dinner with the mayor as part of a fundraiser. We met her at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, so she could enjoy the jazz music, which she loved. I remember being surprised that she also brought along a boyfriend, Byron Wilson. I didn’t even know 80 and 90-year-old women had boyfriends. But Lorraine didn’t let age – or anything else for that matter – stop her from living and enjoying all of her 99 years.
A few years after our dinner, when I decided to run for mayor, I knew I first had to pay a visit to Mayor Morton. She knew Evanston better than anyone else, and her support mattered.
So I went to her house and rang her doorbell. She answered, took my arm, and walked me back to her sunroom where she offered me a glass of some very delicious raspberry lemonade.
We began to talk, but her TV was on so loud that I had trouble hearing her, so I asked her if we could mute it. She said “sure.”
As she’s regaling me with stories about her life as a teacher, principal, alderman and mayor in Evanston, and giving me her take on all the candidates for mayor, including myself, she suddenly stopped. This was 2016, and there was breaking news that Hillary Clinton was not going to be indicted by the FBI. Wolf Blitzer was about to interview Secretary Clinton. We turned the TV back on.
Mayor Morton watched Hillary skillfully handle the interview, saying, “Oh, she’s good. She’s really good. You should be taking notes! You should be taking notes!”
I remember thinking, “Is she serious? Does she actually want me to take notes?” It dawned on me that yes, she probably did. So I took out my notepad and began scribbling down words like “pivot,” “dodge,” and “evade.” I’m still not sure what she expected me to write down that day, but that was the teacher in Mayor Morton. She wanted to make sure I was learning and improving, just like so many of her students.
I don’t recall if that was the meeting she gave me her endorsement, but I do know it was the start of our friendship. There aren’t many people still making new friends in their late 90s, but Mayor Morton had many of those relationships. It’s who she was.
Mayor Morton greatly valued her relationships, and she also valued history—both her family history and the history of our city. I’ll never forget when she brought her long-lost niece, Denise, who’s with us today from Alaska, to visit her old office at City Hall.
Despite living nearly 100 years, Lorraine was never afraid of progress and change. She faced many barriers in her life as an African American and as a woman, and she knew that people, places and institutions had to change in order to adapt and grow. As the first educator to break the color barrier at Nichols Middle School, as our City’s first black mayor, and as our first Democratic mayor, not only was Lorraine Morton not afraid of change – she was the change.
And while she broke barriers, she was all about building bridges. As mayor, she brought our diverse community together. She improved our City’s relationship with Northwestern. She helped revitalize our downtown. She helped Evanston youth get summer jobs. She believed that people could accomplish a whole lot more if they stopped arguing and just started working together.
Lorraine Morton was positivity. She was progress. And she left our city a much better place than when she arrived.
It is an honor to work in the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, a building appropriately named after her, in the office that she held for 16 years, representing the city that she loved so dearly.
If there’s anyone I should have taken notes on that afternoon in Mayor Morton’s sunroom, it was her. She had so much to share with us about leadership, civility and service. And even though she’s passed on, I know that her incredible spirit, optimism, and wisdom was instilled and lives on in so many of us here today. We will help carry on her legacy of progress, partnership and community for many, many generations to come. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
God bless you, Mayor Morton. May you rest in peace. And May your spirit shine bright in all those you touched throughout your long life.