Evanston lost its first African American mayor, second female mayor, first Democratic mayor, and longest-serving mayor when Lorraine Morton died on September 8th, three months to the day shy of her 100th birthday. To write that she was a ‘force of nature’ is an understatement. With her always positive attitude, beaming smile, and genuine interest in everyone she met, her impact on the City of Evanston was boundless.
Most remarkable is that despite her advanced age, Lorraine retained her mental acuity until the end of her life. I often reminded her when we spoke that I was doing my best ‘to follow her example’ of how to live. I am sure the secret to her longevity and vitality was her upbeat attitude, her steadfast involvement in the Evanston community and in her family, and her ability to stay up-to-date on everything going on around her. For example, she would correspond by email well into her 90s. Anytime I would ask her if she wanted to attend an event, or speak to one of my classes, her response was always the same – ‘when do you want me to be ready’ – no equivocations, and she fulfilled her commitments.
Originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she moved to Evanston in 1953 to pursue her Master’s degree in education from Northwestern University. Having graduated from a historically black university, Winston-Salem Teacher’s College, she was initially put on academic probation when she was accepted at Northwestern. This fact rankled her because the probation was based on the perceived inferiority of her degree from a historically black college, not on her academic performance. No matter, Lorraine did well at Northwestern and received her Master’s degree in teaching.
Lorraine Morton’s life was one of many ‘firsts’ in more than the local political arena. She also broke the ‘color barrier’ at Evanston schools at which she taught. She became a middle school principal, serving in this position for thirty years. Beloved and well known to so many Evanstonians, it is little wonder she was tapped to become a local alderman and then years later, elected mayor. Her widespread bipartisan support reflected her ability to get along with all factions of the Evanston community.
I will never forget that during one election year an Evanston newcomer decided to challenge Lorraine for the Mayor’s position. He campaigned on the platform that Evanston needed a younger person in the mayor’s office and it was time for Lorraine to assume an elder stateswoman’s role. He thought she was better suited to attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but needed to step away from the day-to-day mayoral duties she had been performing for years. In what must have been one of her most decisive and satisfying victories, Lorraine beat her challenger by receiving over 70% of the votes cast. Her opponent responded to his embarrassing loss by moving away from Evanston.
Lorraine was Evanston’s most visible cheerleader for sixteen years and she took great delight in fulfilling her mayoral tasks. She explained that her father had taught his ten children that a life of service to one’s community is a life worthwhile. With her strong belief in the importance of family, she honored her father’s words throughout her life. No doubt she exceeded his expectations and Evanston is the better for her efforts, energy, and spirit.