Lawmaker, professor, writer, mother, and wife. All of these descriptions fit former State Representative Mary Lou Cowlishaw. On Wednesday June 23rd she passed away after decades of community service.
“What a gal, what a drive, what a spunky personality,” said George Pradel, Mayor of Naperville.
Long before Mary Lou Cowlishaw represented Naperville as its state legislator, she had an impact on the community. She began writing for the Naperville Sun in 1958 after coming to Naperville from Rockford.
“I’d go up there and say, ‘so Mary Lou what’s new?’ and she’d say, ‘why should you be asking me that when you’re on the streets? You should be coming in with all these stories and everything,’” recalled Pradel.
Always a fan of music, Cowlishaw had a passion for the Naperville Municipal Band. She often wrote about the band in her column, and in 1980 she and Dorothy Keller, current Band Director Ron Keller’s mother, wrote a book called “This Band’s Been Here Quite A Spell…1859-1981.”
“The fact that it was printed and brought attention to the people of Naperville about the history of the band, I think that was a very important step in preserving our history,” said Keller.
But Cowlishaw was more than just a journalist. She had a love for children and education. She served on School District 203’s Board for 11 years before giving it up to run for State Representative for the 96th District in 1983.
Down in Springfield, Cowlishaw was one of the only women in a man’s world, but she held her own. In her freshman term as State Representative she helped transition Edward Hospital from a public hospital into a private hospital- the very same hospital where Cowlishaw passed away.
“The entire Edward family is going to miss her,” said Vice President of Marketing Brian Davis. “We owe a lot to her in our history, and she was just a terrific person and we’re really going to miss her.”
Cowlishaw’s love of education never went away, and in 1994 she spearheaded the biggest piece of legislature in her career– the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act.
Cowlishaw’s colleagues say in addition to that type of drive and ambition; it was her personality that helped make her so successful in Springfield. Former colleague and friend Harris Fawell, who served as Republican in the 13th District, says of Cowlishaw “She never gave up, she was an untiring worker who didn’t make enemies and had nothing but friends on both sides of the aisle.”
Cowlishaw retired as State Representative in 2003.
“You know, she was small in stature, but she was so big in character, and anytime she came into a room you had to recognize her,” said Joe Dunn, who succeeded Cowlishaw as State Representative. “And having lunches with her, having dinners with her, she took her time, she told her stories slowly, and she demanded attention. She was just a wonderful person to spend time with.”
Current Representative Darlene Senger says Cowlishaw helped pave a way for women like her to take a role in their community.
“Nothing intimidated Mary Lou,” said Senger. “I mean, there were no barriers for her. She was really fair, straight, understood what had to be done and there weren’t walls because she didn’t create any. She didn’t see walls.”
Cowlishaw didn’t let retirement slow her down. Always an advocate of North Central College, she received an honorary degree and became an adjunct professor of education. In addition to her talents, Cowlishaw donated all of her legislative papers to the college’s archives.
“It’s amazing how you can bring people together who might otherwise disagree violently. And that was her style,” said North Central President Harold Wilde. “And she could use charm and she could use wit and she could use her good spirits to move natural antagonists to some kind of a compromise.”
Many organizations and people all across the city have honored Cowlishaw over the years. In 1997, Indian Prairie School District 204 named a school after her.
“She has a school named after her. It wouldn’t surprise me that someday the city would name a park after her. It would be appropriate,” said Keller.
Mary Lou Cowlishaw made a big impact on the people and places of Naperville, and her friends will always remember her fondly.
“I would say a lady of commitment and perseverance,” said Pradel.
“She was a groundbreaker, no question at all,” said Senger.
“She loved this community and was very, very loyal to us and she represented us well,” said Dunn.
“I think of Mary Lou of the kind of politician I wish we had a lot more of, and not just in Springfield, but in Washington too,” said Wilde.
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