Karen Lewis' legacy: A look back at the life, influence of the Chicago Teachers Union president

She was in and out of the news for years as the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, so you might think you know a lot about Karen Lewis before she passed away just over a year ago.

But how much do you really know?

"We are insulted by their refusal to extend the contract, with a three-percent raise. We are beyond insulted by their board's move to decrease our pay by seven-percent," Lewis had said.

Lewis knew how to play hard ball when she needed to. She also had a sharp wit to help her get her point across.

"People aren’t leaving Illinois because the business climate is so terrible. People are leaving Illinois for a variety of reasons, including the weather," Lewis said in 2015.

If you ask some of those who knew her best, there was so much more to her than that.

"Karen is one of the people in the world who I know that I would say is a genius," said Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

"I don’t think people knew Karen went to medical school. The reason she was a [National Board Certified] chemistry teacher is because she had incredible training in that area," Sharkey said. "Karen worked as a stand-up comic … her sharp wit and her humor were trained on the stage … Karen had gone to an Ivy League university."

She also converted to Judaism after the death of her first husband and could rattle off sentences in Italian and French.

"Her genius wasn’t for remembering facts and figures," Sharkey said.


Outside of her family, if anyone knew who Lewis was, it's Sharkey. The current CTU president was the union’s vice president under her. The two rose to the top together.

"Her genius is for being interested in people. Remembering details about them," Sharkey said. "Karen was a person, you know, I think was really misunderstood and mischaracterized in a lot of ways … She used to have this really funny way where she would go through and mock the pictures. The pictures always had her scowling (gestures) and you know."

She definitely kept her sense of humor in 2018 when the Chicago Tribune reported a glitch at the Chicago Sun Times that caused Lewis' pre-written obituary to be temporarily published online for a couple of hours.

She told Chicago Inc. that she "thought it was hilarious... and stuff happens."


Lewis also said she was touched by the first line which read, "Karen Lewis was fearless."

"It’s a tragedy that illness took Karen when it did," Sharkey said. "Because she had a lot more to give."

But sharkey adds she left behind a long list of accomplishments that she will be remembered for.

"I think having an elected school board is something which unfortunately didn’t pass … the law didn’t get signed until after she passed … but it was heading that direction," Sharkey said. "When those laws that restricted our bargaining rights were repealed, that was a big deal as well."

"I think most of all, Karen was very proud of the revitalization of the CTU," Sharkey said. "How many thousands of members participate in it … how people across the city now look at it as a voice."

Here are a few other interesting facts you might not know about Lewis. She was born on the South Side of Chicago, both of her parents were public school teachers, and she is also a trained musician.