While a student at Northern Illinois University in 1972, Kathy Schultz urged her friends to join her as she set off to meet the candidates for Illinois governor.
"Why?" they asked.
"Because we have to figure out whose campaign to work for," Schultz explained matter-of-factly.
Her logic only added to her peers' confusion.
"Didn't your moms make you work on campaigns?" Schultz asked incredulously. Growing up in Wheeling as the oldest daughter of Bob and Sheila Schultz, she remembers stuffing envelopes and campaigning door-to-door for every elected office from the local school board to the U.S. Senate seat won by Republican Chuck Percy to the grass-roots campaign of Democrat Dan Walker, who would win that 1972 gubernatorial race.
Forty years later, the woman now known as Kathy Ryg is leaving a public service career that has included elected positions in local, county and state government, as well as lead roles in not-for-profit advocacy groups. Ryg, who turns 60 in August, stepped down this week from her position as president of Voices for Illinois Children, and was replaced by Gaylord Gieseke, the group's veteran vice president.
A crusader for family issues, Ryg, a longtime Vernon Hills resident, says she and her husband, Tom Hedlin, now will have more time for their four grown children and first grandchild. Two weddings and the birth of another grandchild are expected in the months ahead.
"I'll do some hands-on early childhood work," quips Ryg, who worked on preschool programs as a legislator and with Voices for Illinois Children.
"I really, really enjoyed my work at Voices," says Ryg, who held that position for three years and says she was grateful for the chance to work with "brilliant people" on programs that include early childhood intervention, affordable insurance, education and family economics. She grew up concerned about the issues facing suburban families.
"I got going with local politics," says her mother, Sheila Schultz, 82, who served two years as a village trustee and 16 years as village president in Wheeling, and remains active in local political races and community organizations. "It was something we enjoyed, and we wanted to make a difference. She (Kathy) just grew into it."
Having gotten her bachelor's degree in family services, Ryg worked at facilities in Elk Grove Village and Arlington Heights with Clearbrook, the suburban-based agency that provides services and advocacy for children and adults with developmental disabilities, and also with the Northwest Mental Health Center. As a divorced mom with two daughters, Ryg won election in 1988 and served eight years as village clerk in Vernon Hills. Then she decided to run for countywide office in the 1994 Lake County clerk's race.
"That's the first time I really had to choose a political affiliation," says Ryg, who had worked with Republicans and Democrats during her years as a village official, was wooed by both parties and struggled with her decision. "It's a good sign neither party has it together."
When she announced that she was running, Ryg remembers getting a phone call from then-state Sen. Adeline Geo-Karis, a Republican heavyweight from Zion.
"She told me she was so glad I was running and what a good job I'd do," Ryg remembers, flattered by the praise. It was short-lived as Geo-Karis called back minutes later.
"She said, 'You're running as a Democrat?'" Ryg says. "Then she took my head off."
Ryg lost that election and accepted a job in the recorder of deeds office, but she also won a seat on the village board in Vernon Hills. In 2002, she was elected state representative from the 59th District, which covers east-central Lake County and a portion of northern Cook County.
Armed with master's degrees in education and public administration from Roosevelt University, Ryg carved out a reputation as someone who could bring Republicans and Democrats together for good causes.
"She's one of the hardest-working people I've ever had the pleasure to work with," state Rep. Suzanne Bassi, a Palatine Republican, said when Ryg left the legislature in 2008. "Kathy's had a long history of working in a bipartisan fashion. She's a person of great personal integrity with the highest ethical standards."
Others echoed those sentiments.
"Kathy has a stellar reputation as a champion on children's issues, mental health and developmental disabilities. Legislators from both parties respect her and her strong record of working in a bipartisan and bicameral manner. She is a tremendous coalition-builder," said state Sen. Pamela Althoff, a McHenry Republican.
State Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican, echoed those comments, adding, "Over the years, I've been proud to work with both Voices and Kathy on a number of priorities -- such as strengthening early childhood education, improving kids' after-school opportunities and mental health programs."
Ryg rattles off mentors from both parties.
"I had people on both sides of the aisle I really respected," she says, adding that key for both parties is to educate voters on the issues instead of just repeating mantras that might help win re-election. "That's what is missing: the way to articulate the complexities."
In urging people to get involved in local elections and issues, Ryg sounds as if she could be her mother. But they each carved their own political paths.
Ryg remembers when former Park Ridge mayor and state Sen. Marty Butler saw both women at a meeting of the Northwest Municipal Conference.
"Kathy, have you met Sheila?" Butler asked.
"I've known her all my life," Ryg responded.
The mother and daughter say they both plan to remain active in local issues.
"I don't know if there was any ambition on her part or mine," Schultz says of their political careers. "It was more about where we could be effective."
"I want people to see the value in local government," Ryg says, adding that you never know who might be needed to jump into the political fray. "Be open to the opportunities."
Legacy: Former state representative is slowing down to spend time with family