Remembering Maria Whelan
Maria Whelan, a force of nature, died suddenly on June 10, 2020 and all who knew her are left wondering how to fill the void she leaves behind. Maria was a fierce advocate for children and families and someone who never held back in any area of her life. She is survived by her husband of 40+ years, Jack Wuest, her three daughters, Catherine Mary, Ellen Rose and Maeve Margaret, their husbands Ian Merritt, Conor Stinson and Virgilio Larralde, and the lights of her life, her three grandchildren Teddy and Archie (Merritt) and Evie (Stinson). Maria is also survived by her 9 brothers and sisters, over 50 nieces and nephews, dozens of cousins, and leagues of friends and colleagues who love her dearly. Maria created community wherever she was and saw in every person someone worthy of respect, a good joke and a great story. She worked tirelessly to expand opportunity and happiness for as many people as possible and the world is forever changed by her.
Maria was born on December 4, 1950 in the Northwest woods of East Hampton, New York. She was the third of 12 children, part of a boisterous clan who, along with 10 cousins down the road, grew and romped among forests of oak trees and salty bay air. She was loved by her parents, Mary and Duane, and grew up in a home full of stories, songs, art, debate, social activism, literature, and noise. She brought that all with her to Dubuque, Iowa at the age of 17 to study at Clarke College. A self-described disaster of a student in high school, Maria thrived at Clarke, where she was surrounded by women who became her lifelong sisterhood, and where she first recognized and learned to apply her sharp intellect. After college, she moved to Chicago and earned her master’s degree at the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences. No stranger to hard work, she supported herself as a waitress and then a janitor at the former St. Mary’s school, where she met her partner and best friend, Jack. After six years, they defied the odds and married in 1979 and shared nearly 50 years together. Theirs was a marriage of equals and true partnership, of shared joy, difficulty, politics, and humor. Together they raised their three beloved daughters on the far north side of Chicago in Rogers Park.
It was also at St. Mary’s where Maria worked with other educators and advocates to develop what became the Carole Robertson Center for Learning. Though she didn’t exactly know what she was doing, Maria never let that stop her and over the next 16 years she helped grow the Carole Robertson Center into a thriving center for quality early childhood education on the West side of Chicago. Equally important to Maria were the people she worked alongside — the staff, the parents and the children of the Carole Robertson Center whom she would remember and share stories for the rest of her life.
Maria’s professional life was important to her and she never apologized for her ambitions or her achievements (let alone her opinions). She continued to fight for families and children across Illinois, working to ensure equal access to quality and affordable childcare in her roles at the City of Chicago’s Department of Human Services and the Chicago Community Trust. In 2000, she became the President and CEO of Illinois Action for Children, where she worked tirelessly until the day she died. It was at Illinois Action for Children where Maria passionately advocated to elevate the importance of early childhood education and of investing in working families and children to the highest reaches of state government. She suffered no fools and was intimidated by no one. Maria looked at everyone with the same eyes and expected those with privilege and power to care about those who have neither. She was fierce, she was righteous, she was smart and she was funny. She brought all of this to bear on moving Illinois forward, advancing programs, funding and legislation that have changed our state. And, she did it with gusto, hard work, partnerships and charm.
But if you were to ask Maria about her greatest achievements, she would list her children and her grandchildren. She raised three women to be proud, to be kind, to be strong, to work hard and to laugh loud and often. She never placed on them any expectations or restrictions for who they should be so long as they were true to themselves. She loved with great affection and delight and would often say she was most proud of her close friendship with each of her girls. Her boundless love and warmth expanded to her sons-in-law, whom she welcomed as family from the beginning. She was a doting and devoted grandmother to Teddy, Archie and Evie and if you had five minutes to spare (or even if you didn’t) she would show you pictures and tell you a story (or three) of their latest exploits.
Maria made friends everywhere she went, she kept up with people and told them they mattered, made them laugh and gave them big, wonderful hugs. She asked about their parents or their children or their work, she made connections to help people find their way, and she always paid forward her own professional success by meeting with anyone looking for advice or direction. Inevitably she encouraged everyone around her to be bold and go for it and you knew that she would support you along the way.
Her capacity for love was endless. Her love of gossip, deep. Her interests, quirky and specific. And her spirit and laugh filled every room she entered. To know Maria was to love her, to be charmed, to be interested, to be listened to, to be interrupted, to be entertained. She brought people together and demanded we all do better, especially in building a world where children are important and where they matter. She took solace in reading, in classical music, and in the beauty of Vermont where she shared a home with her siblings.
There is no one like Maria Whelan, and she might joke, “Thank God.” But for those of us who loved her, who were shaped and held by her, the idea of a party, a holiday, a meeting, or a quiet Sunday night without her care, her wit, her “scuttlebutt,” and her laughter is impossible to imagine. She filled our lives and our hearts and she will be remembered forever.