Cheryl Rabine remembered as passionate philanthropist, devout Catholic and devoted mother, wife

  • Cheryl and Gary stand with their family. In the back row are Cheryl's daughter, Janelle, left, Gary, Chery's son-in-law Gabe holding Lincoln and Chery's son Austin. In the front row, are Chery's son Nikita, left, Cheryl and Cheryl's daughter Jordan.

    Cheryl and Gary stand with their family. In the back row are Cheryl's daughter, Janelle, left, Gary, Chery's son-in-law Gabe holding Lincoln and Chery's son Austin. In the front row, are Chery's son Nikita, left, Cheryl and Cheryl's daughter Jordan. Courtesy Shaw Media

Updated 11/24/2020 11:18 AM

Local philanthropist Cheryl Ann Rabine was a woman who saw the world through the lens of what she could do for other people, even if it was something that might ultimately be to her detriment, her husband said.

When Cheryl regained consciousness after more than four hours of a second lifesaving surgery to remove a brain tumor in the summer of 2016, she told her husband, Gary Rabine, that she finally understood why God had allowed her to be diagnosed with cancer.


"She said, 'Of the people I pray for, there's always six or seven that I just pray get closer to God and closer to their faith, whatever their faith is,'" Gary recalled.

"She named all these people and said ... 'Every single one of them has said they've never prayed so much in their life as they have these last few days. That's why I got this because hopefully people are going to get closer to God because of my battle.'"

This was emblematic of who Cheryl was, said Gary Rabine, who spoke to the Northwest Herald this week about his wife. She died Oct. 31.

She instilled this same level of compassion and kindness in her four children, said her oldest son, Austin Rabine.

"We are really, really close as a family, and it is because of her," he said. "She made sure that we were really close ... and that we all knew that we loved each other."

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A devout Catholic with a passion for evening the playing field for the disadvantaged, Cheryl became involved with Court Appointed Special Advocates, a program that gives abused and neglected children more of a voice in court by pairing them with a volunteer advocate.

Cheryl was part of a group of women who brought a CASA chapter to McHenry County in 2005, although she was often too humble to take credit, Gary said.

Mary Margaret Maule, former chairwoman of the CASA McHenry County board, said she met Cheryl when they rode the bus to school together in elementary school. Cheryl inspired her to join the organization when the two reconnected decades later, Maule said.

"She had this really lovely way of being able to pull the greatest parts of people out of them," Maule said. "She had this very soft-spoken, gentle presence that just moved things. ... She was very intentional when she spoke and it really landed on people in a way that made them think."

From serving as executive director of the Rabine Group Foundation Board, which Cheryl and Gary founded together in 2007, to sitting on the AMITA Health Board, Cheryl touched the hearts of many in the McHenry County community, Gary said.


"I can tell you if every community had a Gary and Cheryl in it with the loving family they raised, we'd all be in a better spot," one of Cheryl's good friends, Rosemary Matzl, said in an email. "I miss her and our communities won't be the same without her."

Cheryl was born Dec. 14, 1963, in Waukegan, but grew up in Gurnee. As the only girl, Cheryl was adored by her parents, Robert and Delores Blackowicz, her husband said. Both of her parents have passed, along with her brother Gary.

She had three older brothers, Jim, Tom and Gary, and a younger brother named Jeff. Jim, Tom and Jeff were the kinds of brothers who liked to tease her as children, which, Gary said, made her into the strong woman he knew her to be.

Her oldest brother, Jim Blackowicz, recalled teasing her about her first car, an AMC Pacer he called "an aquarium on wheels."

"Cheryl was a very smart girl," Blackowicz said in an email. "She grew into a true lady -- a very strong, confident woman with class."

Her brother, Gary, was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord is unable to develop properly, and Cheryl was always a second caretaker to him, next to her mother.

"Cheryl was kind of the big sister instead of little sister for him," her husband said. "Kids would pick on him, and Cheryl would be around him to protect him as a younger sister."

This continued into adulthood, when Cheryl set her brother up with his soon-to-be wife and helped them get situated on their own.

The whole family was incredibly close and when it came time for Cheryl and husband Gary to start their own family, she made sure this would continue, he said.

Cheryl and Gary met as teenagers in the '80s, when the best way to have fun was to drive across the border into Wisconsin where the legal drinking age was lower, to hang out at bars and listen to musicians play rock music in tight leather pants, Gary said.

Gary met Cheryl through mutual friends and immediately wanted to get to know her more. Luckily, his mullet and opening line asking whether she had seen his pickup truck on the way in didn't scare her off, he said.

"She had this aura of confidence, quiet confidence about her," Gary said. "Anytime she would speak, whatever she would say would be very thoughtful. She wouldn't talk just to talk."

The two soon began dating and were married on Oct. 18, 1985.

Shortly after marrying, the two had their first son, Austin, followed by two girls, Janelle and Jordain, who Gary said inherited their mother's propensity for giving.

Cheryl was a hairdresser before quitting her job to focus on raising the kids.

She worked hard to give her children a life full of love and support, constantly looking for opportunities for the family to spend time together on trips or through simple picnics with friends in their backyard, Austin said.

When they came of age to go off to college, Cheryl and Gary felt they had more love to give and ended up adopting a young boy from Russia named Nikita, who now is 19 years old.

Even through 35 years together, Gary said he never doubted the love and devotion his wife felt toward him.

On June 6, 2016, the Rabine family had their worlds turned upside down with a phone call.

After consulting a doctor about headaches and dizziness, an MRI showed Cheryl had a cancerous brain tumor in her right frontal lobe. She was rushed to the hospital for emergency brain surgery.

The surgery went well, but soon after her doctors realized portions of the tumor remained and she would have to undergo another operation as soon as possible, Gary said.

The second live-saving operation within just a few days would be arduous and risky, the doctors warned.

After four hours of the family huddling together in the hospital waiting room, Cheryl's doctor emerged with a smile to say she had survived the surgery and her heart was stronger than many people half her age, Gary recalled.

"The first thing she said after he took the tube out of her throat, with a scratchy voice, she said 'I've never felt prayer like this before,'" he said.

After a long journey through chemotherapy and radiation, Cheryl began to recover and feel like herself again, he said. Even during this time, she never became bitter or fell into self-pity, but rather continued to focus on caring for her people.

It was because of this selflessness and fighting spirit Cheryl was awarded the 2016 Never Be Defeated Award by the Gavers Community Cancer Foundation, organization President Steve Gavers said.

"They were always trying to help others through multiple organizations and that's why I chose them," Gaver said. "She was just a total stand-up person. It was always others before her."

Cheryl grew stronger and stronger each day and lived three more happy years with her loved ones before the cancer returned roughly one year ago, Gary said.

Again, Cheryl managed the return of the cancer like she did everything else in her life -- with patience, strength and quiet confidence, he said.

When it became clear it would soon be her time to go, her loving husband wrote out a passage of everything he wanted her to know before she left. He read it to her at her bedside and, days later, Cheryl Rabine died at 11:11 a.m. Oct. 31, surrounded by family.

If there's one thing Cheryl would want to honor her memory, Gary said, it would be for those who knew her, and even those who didn't, to look around at the people in their life and make sure they know they are loved.

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