Spring with the Rush Woman’s Board







From Vogue editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speakers for the past 25 years at the Woman’s Board of Rush University Medical Center Spring Luncheon have held sold-out audiences spellbound. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, and climate change expert, who will speak to the 600-plus audience this year at the Hilton on May 7, continues in the tradition of riveting speakers with something to say.


A Rush Woman’s Board Committee, 2018. Photo by Frank Ishman.

Although a few of the earlier speakers were men, including interior designer Mark Hampton for the luncheon’s second year, the tradition now is to invite outstanding women in varied fields: author Nora Ephron, political historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, commentator Cokie Roberts, businesswoman Cheryl Tiegs, movie maker Sherry Lansing, and First Lady Laura Bush, to name a few.

We asked the board’s first lunch chair, Malou Rawls; the president at the time, Laurie Friedeman; and the idea initiator Brenda Dick—ingenious originators all—how it began. This year’s chairs, Anne Loucks and Gwen Solberg, and Rush Woman’s Board President Cindy Nicolaides shared a behind-the-scenes look at this year’s luncheon and the hospital they love.

Malou: Brenda was the chair of Rhythms of the Night, our first evening Fashion Show. Laurie Friedeman was the president of the Woman’s Board, and it was her vision to make the Fashion Show fresh and new. Brenda first floated the idea of a luncheon in the spring to augment and complement it. She turned to her stepmother, Kathleen Casey Johnson, former editor-in-chief of Vogue, and her own friend Andrea Robinson, former Vogue beauty editor who had worked with Grace Mirabella, and they made the introduction. Grace had been ignominiously ousted from Vogue and had started her eponymous magazine, Mirabella, to appeal to a more mature demographic of women with taste and buying power.

She was our first speaker. I was asked to be the first chair along with Beverly Blettner, who did seating arrangements. Laurie and I were flying by the seat of our pants! I knew someone in the arts department at Leo Burnett, and she worked with me on the invitation, which I think was used in some form until about 9 or 10 years ago. We wanted to tie it into the Fashion Show, so it was a dressmaker’s form that had a flower pinned on it. 

At a February executive committee meeting, they had just been delivered and someone from the Woman’s Board office brought one into the meeting to pass around. I shrieked because the flower was green and the leaves were pink! It should have been the opposite. We all just laughed it off and decided that it was a ‘mod’ moment. Years later, it was corrected, but the invitation had a good run and was iconic for the luncheon.


 Marletta Darnall and  Malou Rawls.

Laurie: My presidency was from 1995 to 1996, a period marked with great innovation and youthful energy. Brenda Dick’s creative insight brought the idea that we should shake up the Fashion Show and move it from a lazy daytime event to a robust evening adventure for the evening, thus Rhythms of the Night was born and from that came the inspiration for the Spring Luncheon.

We determined that we were doing nothing in the spring to balance our fall fashion show activities and that, at minimum, we needed a PR vehicle to build the momentum for the fall. The event was done with minimal overhead, as Brenda was able to get Grace Mirabella to be our first speaker at no cost and secure Hanes as a sponsor along with other generous underwriters.

Malou Rawls was the most amazing Spring Luncheon chair and brought such grace, elegance, and charm to this perfectly run event. The flowers, food, and the Four Seasons Ball Room were sheer perfection. We had a huge crowd and sold out every year thereafter having to reconfigure the seating and lectern placement.


Laurie Friedeman, Lisa Gregory, and Lori Jaros.

We couldn’t resist asking for more details:

M: Since Hanes was a sponsor, everyone got a pair of those pantyhose in the eggs, L’eggs. The publisher provided a magazine for each guest. Marshall Field’s donated wine, and I had to go to the loading dock at State Street and pick it up and return the unopened remainder. We wanted to show the Fashion Show retailers how much we valued them, so their representatives (Nena Ivon from Saks, Diana Hall from Cartier, Ellen Stirling from the Lake Forest Shop, Dick Braido who ran Revillon at Saks, etc.) were guests and sat at tables with Woman’s Board members who they would know and who were clients of theirs. 

 We had a ‘press room’ to introduce Ms. Mirabella to reporters and the local television talent that was also invited. It was at the Four Seasons, and they comped a room for Ms. Mirabella. I think Jack and Peggy Crowe’s chauffeur picked her up at the airport and took her back. And I think the weather might not have been so great, and we were worried about her arrival. I‘m surprised I remember this much because I had an awful sinus infection! Matter of fact, when I went home, I gave the clothes away that I wore—I never wanted to see them again!

The reaction was very positive, and the guests loved it. It has not lost any of its cachet over the years, and the challenge is always to somehow top last year’s speaker.

It has become a good resource for the Woman’s Board and the Medical Center. It allows the current health, both mental and physical, projects that the Medical Center is working on to be presented to that big room of savvy women by the president of the Medical Center in a educated introduction.


             Photo from a past Spring Luncheon.

             Photo from a past Spring Luncheon.

           Photo from a past Spring Luncheon.

Brenda: I did go to O’Hare in the Crowe’s limo, a perfect plan, except for the iffy weather, and Grace appreciated being feted. Malou, with organization and style, created all the special details that made the lunch an immediate hit: a sellout crowd of smashing Chicago ladies. And Beverly Blettner could seat any royal wedding if asked.

Grace provided the smart, behind-the-scenes look into the fashion world. I was hoping to break even and create Fashion Show buzz, but Malou immediately moved the goal line and created a first-time event with immediate financial benefit for the Medical Center. Malou and Grace set the stage and interest for the next year and the next.


Brenda Dick,  at  right, with Grace Mirabella , center, and Janet Davies at the 1995 spring luncheon.

 M: I think everybody likes to see people they don’t see all the time or even those they do see all time. It is much more, I think, than a ‘ladies’ lunch’ of yesteryear, although the clothes are really, really pretty!


             Photo from a past Spring Luncheon.

B: Attending the Spring Luncheon provides a moment to step away from routine and refresh the brain and heart with our extraordinary community of women. When you walk into the buzz, special faces from times past and present come into view and you start smiling. The outside world is put on mute and you are in the present.


             Photo from a past Spring Luncheon.

             Photo from a past Spring Luncheon.

            Photo from a past Spring Luncheon.

              Photo from a past Spring Luncheon.

Fast forward to 2019, and its co-chairs chosen to refresh brains and hearts, Gwen Solberg and Anne Loucks.

Gwen: Anne and I wanted our sophisticated and well-educated audience to enjoy an influential and accomplished woman who has significantly impacted her world. Mary Robinson fit this to the tee. She is genuine and forward thinking in addition to all of her other qualities.

I hope Mary will share her thoughts and experiences on leadership, what it is like to be the first female president of Ireland, and what she is focused on now with her Climate Justice Foundation. I am hopeful that she will raise awareness for the last point as we are at such a critical juncture now, to make the right choices for our planet. I think it’s always interesting to have the perspective from someone outside the US. Historically, I believe we have only had one other international speaker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author, filmmaker, and humanitarian.

Last year, Madeline Albright’s remark, ‘There’s plenty of room in the world for mediocre men but no room for mediocre women’ really touched me. I shared it with my 21-year-old daughter.


Anne Loucks and Gwen Solberg.


Mary Robinson.

Co-Chair Anne Loucks told us how the board chose Mary Robinson.

Anne: The Woman’s Board has a long history of bringing fascinating, relevant, and engaging speakers to the Spring Luncheon, so our goal for this year was no different. We had seen Mary Robinson’s passionate TED talk on climate justice and human rights and thought she would be the perfect speaker for this year’s event given how important issues surrounding climate change are for all of us today.

I think those who attend the luncheon each year are looking to enhance their understanding of topics that are relevant today. We hope those who attend will leave with a broader perspective on issues surrounding climate change and climate justice, as well as an enhanced understanding of the important programs the Woman’s Board supports.

The planning takes over a year. We are so fortunate to have a great committee and incredible support from the team at Rush: Catherine Kenyon, Jennifer Veloso, Sarah Mitchell, and many others.

Woman’s Board President Cindy Nicolaides gave us an overview of the board’s long-term commitment.

Cindy: The Women’s Board has a 135-year history of supporting the Medical Center’s mission of improving the health of individuals within the diverse communities we serve. The programs and initiatives of the Woman’s Board have evolved over time. However, our commitment to educating the community while supporting Rush remains constant. My goals for the luncheon are to educate the attendees about Rush, to highlight the work of the Woman’s Board, to raise funds to support Rush’s programs, to be inspired by Mary Robinson, and, of course, to have fun!

In 2019 The Woman’s Board pledged to support Rush Community Service Initiative Programs (RCSIP), which is a network of community service programs that match Rush Medical College students’ interests to the social and health care needs of Chicago. An all-volunteer initiative, RCSIP affords Rush students the opportunity to work alongside faculty and staff providing health care services to more than 10,000 people annually. The Woman’s Board’s $500,000 RCSIP endowment will provide long-term funding for these important experiences that enhance students’ ability to develop patient relationships, care for diverse populations, work in teams, and provide targeted services based on community needs.

The Woman’s Board members serve as wonderful ambassadors to spread the mission of Rush. Board members are engaged in furthering the board’s mission in many ways. Their commitment includes promoting the board’s various initiatives and many are very generous to invite guests to attend events such as the Spring Luncheon. Board members work hard to educate their colleagues to the amazing things Rush is doing both within the hospital and throughout the west side of Chicago.

We are very fortunate to have Dr. Larry Goodman, CEO of Rush University Medical Center, attend and speak at the event. He is always so inspiring. We are also excited that Darlene Hightower, Vice President Community Health Equity, and Sharon Gates, Senior Director of Rush Community Service Initiative Programs (RCSIP), will be attending. Money raised from the luncheon will support our community-based programs, including RCSIP.


Cindy Nicolaides. Photo by Lisa Neild.

Malou, who now lives in Virginia, summed it up:

“The Rush Spring Luncheon! I would never have even thought about the 25th year! I have returned every year because it gives me a nice chance to treat my friends to a ladies’ lunch and also to keep my involvement, albeit from a distance, with the Woman’s Board and try to maintain a relationship with those friends.

“The Woman’s Board is an amazing organization, or I wouldn’t still be involved after moving almost 14 years ago!”