Kathleen Anne Hewitt Kastilahn died on Oct. 11, less than a month after her 76th birthday.
Born in Chicago to Harley and Ruth Hewitt, she attended Lyons Township High School, where she was yearbook editor.
At Northwestern University, where she majored in journalism, she met William (“Bill”) Kastilahn. Both sets of parents, he said, had dragged them to the University’s Lutheran Center “so we’d know where it was.” After crossing paths for more than a year, the two began a relationship that lasted through 58 years of marriage.
After a sojourn in California while Bill earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Stanford, the couple settled into life in Evanston. Son Will was born in 1975 and Danny in 1979, and the family made their home on Lincolnwood Drive.
Kathy began her writing career composing safety manuals for home appliances. Writing for such publications as North Shore Magazine and the Evanston Review, she became a well-known and respected local reporter.
But once she began writing for The Lutheran magazine in 1992, her readership became national, as she traveled internationally and wrote on the challenges and the celebrations of developing countries.
Assignments took her to such highly visible places as Hong Kong and Cannes, as well as countries where people struggled in relative obscurity with poverty and disease.
As an associate editor of The Lutheran, she was one of an international group of five who traveled in 2003 to poverty- and famine-worn Zimbabwe to report on Lutheran projects there. President Robert Mugabe, who was attempting to stifle journalism in his country, accused the group of working without proper visas and held them under house arrest for several days.
Yet she always bore witness to the dignity of the human spirit – in a village high in the Andes, for example, in disaster-torn northern India and in newly “decolonized” Tanzania. “The poorest people in the world give the most,” she observed on returning from one of her trips.
Combining her commitment to social justice and interest in international affairs, she volunteered for more than 20 years at Ten Thousand Villages in Evanston.
And even while writing on international issues, she supported local journalism by joining the advisory committee of Evanston RoundTable Media.
Her friends numbered in the hundreds, her husband said, noting nearly 1,000 contacts on her phone. Sorority sisters from Kappa Delta at Northwestern, friends from Evanston and colleagues at The Lutheran blended into a river of amity. People warmed to her crisp observations, combined with a gentle wit and a wry but compassionate outlook on the world.
Wynn Graham met Kathy as a sorority sister when she transferred to Northwestern.
“It was the beginning of a friendship over 55 years. We were lucky to move back to Evanston in the late ’80s, and she provided the perfect introductions to our boys’ activities and to a weekly coffee meet-up.
“We shared many good stories, political analyses and book recommendations and, most of all, support. She was a wise and gracious friend, always there … as she was for many longtime friends and new ones,” Wynn said.
“Some might say Kathy would give the shirt off her back,” said friend and sorority sister Carol DeVita. “For me, it was her shoes. When I got married in 2013, I forgot to bring my dress shoes to the church. Somehow, word got out to the guests that the bride would be walking barefoot down the aisle. Kathy snapped into action, saying I could borrow her shoes.
“Just in the nick of time, my stepdaughter arrived with my shoes in hand. But Kathy’s offer to help a Kappa Delta sister will always be remembered and gratefully appreciated.”
Jean Ehmsen met Kathy through Wynn Graham. Kathy was a “talented writer, editor, and world traveler” who “was also a great listener and a sweet, generous and brave soul. She was a wonderful friend – the sort you always hope to have in your life. … I remember her scheduling a play date for my daughter so I could get ready for a visit from my in-laws, as well as the egg custard she brought me to quell my morning sickness before either of us knew I was carrying twins. … She was a treasure,” she said.
“Kathy had a gift for maintaining friendships,” said Victoria Scott, a friend for decades. “She and I were fellow members of The Coffee Group, women who met twice a week for morning coffee for more than 30 years. Meanwhile, she was keeping in close touch with college classmates, church friends, fellow volunteers from Evanston School Children’s Clothing Association, 10,000 Villages and the Highland Garden Club, work colleagues and a Swedish couple she met on assignment to Thailand.
“What made her such a valued friend? I think it was her genuine interest and compassion and her unusual ability to understand and sum up a situation or problem.
“And she had style. She had a way with scarves, and even marooned behind a walker on her balcony on her birthday last month, she managed to look fashionable and put-together, wearing a knitted wrap from her sister. On group shopping trips, she was the one plucking and handing out clothes she knew to be just right for each person. Her nod was the badge of approval. The friends rarely declined.”
Karen Callaway, another sorority sister, said, “I echo the comments about Kathy’s graciousness, thoughtfulness, generosity, supportiveness and wisdom. Let me add to the list: intellectually questioning, compassionate and filled with serenity and a quiet joy. She also had a wickedly funny and dry sense of humor – but never, ever at anyone’s expense.
“We enjoyed being ‘ladies who lunch’ whenever our schedules allowed, particularly in September, when both our birthdays occurred. Mine is the 5th; hers was the 19th, so for 15 days in September, I was the ‘elder.’ She reminded me of that on a card one year writing ‘Thank you for going first.’”
From Raleigh, N.C., Kay Tharp wrote. “At NU, Kathy and I often walked on Orrington Avenue between south campus and The Center, the Lutheran campus ministry at 2204. There we worshipped, learned from Pastor Mac [the Rev. Clyde McCormack], studied in quiet spaces, shared Sunday night suppers with friends, and each met a special engineering student. In late summer 1968, Kathy and I were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings – just one week apart., with Pastor Mac officiating.
“Throughout the years and across the miles, Kathy faithfully reported her news of family, activities and projects. Although our in-person visits were years apart, Kathy always welcomed us with good cheer. … ‘For all the saints who from their labors rest…’, which I remember first singing at The Center, has been playing from my heart.”
Longtime neighbor Holly Hoxie said, “Kathy Kastilahn was so vital I thought we’d have her in our lives forever. I know I’m not alone in counting her a best friend. She was drawn to people, and she cared about them, which was evident in the way she spoke from her heart.
“I originally met her when her elder son and my elder [now 47] were in second grade. Our families two years later became across-the-street neighbors, after Kathy informed me about a house that was coming on the market. We were so lucky to share our six boys growing up together, all becoming best friends.
“Charlie remembers when Kathy was at our house one day [he was maybe 6], and he told Kathy he felt bad as he never got any mail: the next day a letter appeared in the mail from Kathy. He still remembers. We all benefited from Kathy’s obvious appreciation of others – she exuded warmth and love to everyone. We all will feel her love forever.”
Colleagues at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America sent their remembrances by email.
“I’m reading this and muttering, ‘No, no-no, no …’ and joining all who loved Kathy and are grieving now,” wrote Ann Hafften.
Sonia Solomonson, Laurel Hensel and Scott Hall were among the many colleagues at The Lutheran who noted her wit and intelligence and recalled her as a “bright light,” a “blessing to readers.”
David L. Miller, her partner at The Lutheran for 13 years, wrote, “A great colleague and truly wonderful person, she made everything we did better. She was fun and funny, thoughtful and full of grace even when we needed to work through disagreements.
“I keep a homemade card and note she gave me at the time I left the magazine. … And so am I grateful for having known and worked alongside of her. She made our part of God’s good world brighter and 10 degrees warmer just because she was there.”
A promise made at her last visit to the Mayo Clinic has allowed researchers there to continue to investigate Anti-IgLON5 Disease, which took her life.
In addition to her husband and sons, she is survived by her sister, Patricia Hewitt; and four grandchildren: Liam, 16; Marley, 14 (Will); Louisa, 5 and Otto, 2 (Danny and Susan).
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Oct. 29 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1004 Greenwood St. in Evanston. The service will be recorded and streamed. You can tune in here.