Ruth Elaine VanDemark died on June 9th at Northwestern Memorial Medical Center, following spinal surgery necessitated by metastatic breast cancer. The cause of death was post-operative liver failure. VanDemark died serenely, without pain, and with family members at her bedside. She was 68.
Ruth had led a remarkable life of varied accomplishments in two disparate fields: the law and the ministry. In the law, Ruth achieved partnership in a major firm at a time when few Chicago law firms had women partners. In the ministry, she rebuilt a decaying church in an inner city neighborhood and restored it to its place as a center of worship and a community resource.
Ruth grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Her parents were Dr. Robert and Mrs. Bertie VanDemark. Going east for college, VanDemark graduated from Vassar in 1966 and then began graduate studies at the Harvard Divinity School, where she met and wed her husband of 45 years, Leland Wilkinson. After graduation, their careers took unusual turns: Ruth graduated with honors from the University of Connecticut Law School in 1976, a time when "women were unmercifully hounded in law school," as she said in a recent interview. Lee earned his Yale doctorate in psychology. VanDemark and her husband moved to Evanston and she became a partner and head of the appellate department at Wildman, Harold, Allen & Dixon. Ruth also served for years as president of the Appellate Law Association of Illinois. She argued appeals before the Illinois Supreme Court and in numerous Federal and State courts. Some of her more famous cases are still cited in law school texts.
It was her church career that led to her greatest distinction, however. In the late 1990's, Ruth responded to her divinity roots and answered a call to become a Lutheran minister. After studying at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and interning at the Augustana Lutheran Church of Hyde Park, VanDemark became the pastor of Wicker Park Lutheran Church. She quickly confronted her first major challenge: the 94-year-old church building was about to be condemned unless a $700,000 renovation and restoration program was undertaken.
"We had towers that needed to be rebuilt, windows that had to be replaced, a deteriorating roof," she recently said in an interview. VanDemark rallied the congregation and neighbors in the Wicker Park community to support the restoration of a magnificent historical building, She worked tirelessly to see it through.
While revitalizing the building, Ruth steadily attracted a vigorous, growing, younger congregation from the thriving Wicker Park area and elsewhere in Chicago. VanDemark and her husband sealed their commitment by buying a house on Pierce Avenue, a block from Ruth's church. Leland Wilkinson, a statistician, software developer and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, worked in partnership with Ruth to help achieve her goals. Today, Wicker Park Lutheran Church has a growing congregation whose Web site (http://www.wickerparklutheran.org/) posts its core mission: "To be a thriving Christian presence in metro Chicago, recognized as offering spiritual and social resources in our community." VanDemark grew her church to be not only a house of worship but also a resource for the numerous community groups that gather there every weekday.
Ruth VanDemark is survived by her husband Leland and daughters Amie and Caroline, brothers Robert Jr. and Richard VanDemark, and grandchildren Beatrice and Felix Farb, the children of Amie Wilkinson and Benson Farb.
Visitation (beginning at nine a.m.) and funeral services (at 11 a.m.) will take place on June 23, at Wicker Park Lutheran Church, at Hoyne and LeMoyne Streets in Chicago, on a date that would have been Leland and Ruth's 45th wedding anniversary.
See also Our Urban Times article . . .
Donations can be made to a memorial fund in Pastor Ruth's name.