Colleagues are remembering Des Plaines Alderman Joanna Sojka as a rising young leader, committed to problem-solving and helping others, who was taken too soon.
The 29-year-old freshman alderman, elected in April 2013 to represent the city's 7th Ward, died late Monday from an apparent stroke, city officials said Tuesday.
Sojka developed stroke-like symptoms last Thursday, but she was treated and released Saturday from the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago. She was taken to Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village Sunday after feeling weak, according to her sister, Martha Sojka.
Aldermen found out their colleague wasn't doing well just before Monday's regularly scheduled city council meeting.
"The whole meeting I was focused on her and saying prayers," said 3rd Ward Alderman Denise Rodd, who became good friends with Sojka as they were running for election.
During the meeting, Mayor Matt Bogusz received a text message that doctors were removing life support.
After the council adjourned, Bogusz, Rodd and other city officials rushed over to the hospital, where they helped comfort Sojka's family.
"She was a beautiful, young, single woman. She could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, but she chose Des Plaines," Rodd said. "She thought of herself as a public servant and not someone above that. That's what will inspire me every day."
Sojka quickly became involved in the community after buying her first condominium in Des Plaines in 2011. Her sister says she attended condo board meetings and then joined Bogusz's mayoral campaign. At the same time Bogusz was elected the youngest mayor in Des Plaines history at 26, Sojka -- a fellow Northwestern University graduate -- won a three-way race of her own for alderman.
"She was always a big proponent for change," said Martha Sojka. "She was always of the mind that if you wanted something to change, it was possible. You just really needed a good plan to do it. Nothing is impossible."
"She wanted to make the community she lived in better for everybody."
Martha Sojka recalls times when she'd stay at her sister's condo in Des Plaines and the alderman would be responding to phone calls from residents. "She would always get back to them right away," she said. "She was so detail-oriented. She was so swift. She'd get it done."
Sojka was coordinator of business and financial services at the University of Illinois system in Chicago, helping to manage procurement functions in the office of the executive assistant vice president.
She brought that experience to her elected role as alderman, Rodd said.
"She was the smartest person I ever met," Rodd said. "She was constantly impressing me with her knowledge and understanding of finance and contracts. She had such a keen understanding of government and how it works."
A stickler for details, Sojka enjoyed reading "every line of every page" of the city council's packets in preparation for meetings, Rodd said.
Sojka, who served as chairman of the city council's public works committee, this year helped negotiate a new seven-year city waste hauling contract.
"She was informed and when she spoke, everyone listened," Rodd said. "She had a way to do it. It was respectful without berating. And it was pointed. There were times she could be pointed, but she was kind, and there was no malice or intent to harm.
"With her passing so young, I think we should all take a cue from that."
The daughter of Polish immigrants, Sojka and her family moved to Schaumburg from Chicago when she was a child. She attended Schaumburg High School, where she was the 2003 valedictorian, and named a member of the Daily Herald Academic Team. She also played badminton and participated on the Scholastic Bowl team.
Sojka received master's and bachelor's degrees from Northwestern.
Her sister, who is two years younger, says they talked to each other on the phone every day.
"She wasn't just my sister. She was my best friend," Martha Sojka said. "I feel like I lost my other half."
Flags will be flown at half-staff in front of all city-owned buildings from Tuesday through sunset on Monday, Aug. 25, and the mayor has asked that businesses and residents do the same.
Services are pending.