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updated: 9/27/2011 6:41 PM

GOP mainstay Mary Jo Arndt dies

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  • Mary Jo Arndt spoke to the crowd during the Illinois delegation breakfast at the Republican National Convention in 2008.

       Mary Jo Arndt spoke to the crowd during the Illinois delegation breakfast at the Republican National Convention in 2008.
    RICK WEST | Staff Photographer

  • Mary Jo Arndt, of Lombard, chats with DuPage County Republicans at a meeting early in her political career. At her right is James "Pate" Philip, Senate Republican leader from 1981 to 2003. Arndt, a Republican National Committeewoman and past president of the National Federation of Republican Women, died Saturday at age 78.

      Mary Jo Arndt, of Lombard, chats with DuPage County Republicans at a meeting early in her political career. At her right is James "Pate" Philip, Senate Republican leader from 1981 to 2003. Arndt, a Republican National Committeewoman and past president of the National Federation of Republican Women, died Saturday at age 78.

 
 

In a glossy black and white photo from the early 1970s, Mary Jo Arndt stands in a shift dress and pearls in the middle of a smoke-filled room.

All around her are men reclining in lounge chairs, puffing away at cigars.

To her right is James "Pate" Philip, who would go on to spend 28 years in the state Senate, a majority of them as the chamber's Republican leader. To her left is DuPage County Republican leader William Swegler.

Arndt's gaze intent, she is, clearly, directing the conversation.

"To me it's like, 'Look out world! Here comes Mary Jo,'" daughter Georgie Ludwig said. "There's nothing that she couldn't do."

From serving as one of Northern Illinois University's first female student body presidents to fighting for Title IX athletic funding to blazing trails as a Republican National Committeewoman for Illinois, Mary Jo Arndt, family and politicos alike say, demonstrated that one could live as a feminist, Republican, wife, and mother without contradiction.

The trailblazer died Saturday following a battle with peritoneal cancer, on the very day, that, just a year before, had been designated Mary Jo Arndt Day by the village of Lombard. She was 78.

Involved in the community until the very end, Arndt attended a York Township Republican meeting as well as a Rotary Club event last week. She'd been actively involved in planning Glenbard West High School's 60th Reunion.

Arndt graduated with a teaching degree from Northern Illinois University in 1954, a year after she married Paul Arndt, a veterinary student and farm boy from DeKalb whom she met through a mutual friend when he was visiting Lombard.

She worked as a fourth and fifth grade teacher and, for a time, as a newspaper columnist.

In 1959, the couple established the Lombard Veterinary Hospital, a family practice two of their three daughters later joined.

Ludwig, the youngest of the Arndt's three children, does not remember a time when he mother was not involved in politics, first through the PTA and the Girl Scouts.

Joining the York Township Republicans in the early 1970s, Arndt quickly moved up the party's organization ladder. Active in suburban politics for 45 years, she was known, in particular, for taking a lead on several initiatives for women. She was once president of the National Federation for Republican Women and founded the Illinois Republican Women's Roundtable in the late 1980s.

Most recently, in 2008, she worked on an effort to draw women supporters to the presidential campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Current Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady first met Arndt on that campaign, called her a "tireless worker" who "did it all from the grass-roots to the top level."

Steve Rauschenberger, a former state lawmaker from 1992 to 2006, recalls that in 2001, after going to the Republican National Convention, she brought back lapel pins for each Republican officeholder in the state.

"Mine was brown, like a sheriff's badge," Rauschenberger said.

Arndt was actively involved in many other interests, as well. She recently completed six years on the board of American Women for International Understanding and was a member of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Illinois and the Xilin Asian Association board of directors. She represented President George H.W. Bush as an observer of the Romanian elections in 1990.

Among political circles, the family is known for its annual elephant Christmas cards -- a theme seemingly perfect for a family of Republican veterinarians.

The tradition began, Ludwig said, in 1986, when Arndt was on the board of directors of Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. At an annual zoo ball, patrons were able to take a picture of an animal of their choice.

Along with her myriad political accomplishments, Arndt will be remembered for bringing a great sense of fun to everyday life, family members say.

"She was an extraordinary grandmother. She'd say. 'Let's do wild things,'" Ludwig said, describing an instance where the family rented a limousine, dressed up and headed downtown, dogs in tow, to take a family picture.

Although Arndt's political involvement often placed her in heated conversations, "she went out of her way to make sure people with whom she disagreed knew that she valued them," said the Rev. Rob Hatfield, senior minister at First Church of Lombard, where Arndt had been a longtime member.

"I marveled at her consistent commitment to women's issues -- women's rights, women's access to political and business and leadership venues," Hatfield said.

She is survived by her husband, three daughters and four grandchildren.

A visitation will be held at 2 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3, at the Maple Street Chapel at the corner of Main and Maple streets in Lombard. Services are being handled by Brust Funeral Home.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$Staff writer Marie Wilson contributed.$PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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