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posted: 1/30/2014 8:12 PM

A passionate advocate for women and education

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  • The plaque at Forest View Educational Center.

    The plaque at Forest View Educational Center.

  • Catherine Lee

    Catherine Lee

By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent

A sitting board member of Northwest Suburban High School District 214's Continuing Education Foundation and the driving force behind its ESL training and literacy for immigrant women has died.

Catherine Lee of Barrington died Tuesday after a five-month battle with brain cancer. She was 72.

Mike Field, executive director of District 214's continuing education foundation, described Lee as the catalyst who helped create its Women and Children's Center, which opened in 2000 at Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights. Foundation officials renamed the center in her honor in April 2012.

"Catherine Lee was truly a citizen of the world who believed that when one life is improved, it causes a positive chain reaction affecting many others," Field said.

A former university professor who taught at Purdue and the University of Detroit before raising her four children, Lee came to her passion for education naturally.

However, her youth in Grand Rapids had just as much of an impact, said her husband, Tim Lee. She was the daughter of first generation Polish and Russian parents, who both worked in factories to support their children's education.

"She came from a very humble family," he said, "who were highly principled."

Catherine and Tim met as undergraduate students at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids and married after Lee completed her master's degree in languages at the University of Michigan.

After her children were older, Lee returned to the workforce, serving as a consultant in management training for Motorola University, whose goal was to offer continuing education for employees as well as customers.

About the same time, in 1985, Lee was elected to serve two terms on Barrington Unit District 220's school board, including as its first woman president. Midway during her years on the board, in 1990, taxpayers authorized spending $10.8 million to build a second middle school, Prairie Campus.

"Cathy had a real dedication and zeal for quality public education -- for all children," said Joe Kelsch, whom Lee succeeded as board president. "She had a very intense interest in education but approached it from a broad perspective."

Increasingly, her husband said, Lee championed women's issues, and within four years of her joining District 214's continuing education foundation, the Women and Children's Center opened.

Through her contacts made in the community and through corporate involvement, Lee helped convene women in leadership positions to sit on an advisory board that helped develop the concept.

Lee also was instrumental in finding funding for the center, most notably through a grant from the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation.

"The center is a safe and nurturing environment where women learn important skills," Field said. "Its primary mission is to help women become confident, self-sufficient and skilled, so that they can provide a healthy family unit, and a bright future for themselves and their children."

At a surprise dedication ceremony to rename the center, Lee pledged through tears to work harder to advance its mission.

"The accomplishments of these women will be a legacy to their children," she said, "their grandchildren, and to us, their community."

Besides her husband, Lee is survived by her children, Stephen (Quin), Andrea (John), Cassie and Moira (Andy), and eight grandchildren.

Visitation will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. today at Davenport Family Funeral Home, 149 W. Main St. before an 11 a.m. funeral Mass on Saturday at St. Anne Catholic Church, 120 Ela St., both in Barrington.

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