Guest Column: Remembering a dynamic friend and colleague

November 20, 2013

Nancy “Leigh” Lakey

Nancy “Leigh” Lakey

By Barb Oehlke and Jane Hayes

No one has ever asked an actor, ‘You’re playing a strong-minded man …’ We assume that men are strong-minded, or have opinions. But a strong-minded woman is a different animal.” — Meryl Streep

What is it about our culture that allows and even encourages men to be powerful and aggressive, but the woman who exerts power and assertiveness is chastised and feared? Aren’t docile dames and muscle men just stereotypes imposed by our culture when our bodies house both male and female hormones, testosterone and estrogen?

Our friend, Nancy “Leigh” Lakey, broke the gender mold, refusing to be pigeonholed. Many saw her as an outspoken activist whose opinions were expressed without veneers or softeners. At 69, she was an advocate for the impoverished and excluded fringe too often faceless to society.

Leigh was married to Don Lakey for 49 years, her constant caregiver to the end. They lived in Oregon, Colo., and finally settled in Rockford, where Leigh worked as an elementary and middle school teacher, director of Upward Board for Beloit College, and at the Rockford Housing Authority. Her three children include Jonathan Dean, Alison and Philip “Pip.”

Three years ago, Leigh lost her job in District 205. She was unfairly targeted by this district and forced to take early retirement or be fired. She was an effective special education teacher expecting structure and progress from her students. She and other special ed teachers were known as the Sped Divas of the district.

Leigh was active in the League of Women Voters, serving as the newsletter chairman, secretary, vice president, and finally, president.

She was also active in the Unitarian Universalist Church and Rockford Urban Ministries. Some do not realize that she was active in MELD, Mother House and Northern Illinois Hospice.

Status quo — not so for Leigh Lakey — who was a trailblazer for women’s rights, politics, education and religious freedoms. Somehow, she made many of us stronger because of her keen insights and irreverent humor. Those of us who traveled with her knew how willful and determined she was to see whatever was on the itinerary. However, she went far beyond the usual sites to adventure and explore unknown foreign cities. Once, in Oslo, Norway, she took off on an adventure to find the Marimekko store specializing in children’s clothing and vibrant fabric. Fearless and …

… And vibrant she was, as she embraced quilting, sewing, reading and travel pursuits beyond our borders. She often opened her home to diverse students, including a Beloit College Chinese student and a Mexican priest, by housing them and embracing their cultures, foods and customs.

Playful she was to her precious grandchildren, Ella and Lazarus, who adored her. As Leigh requested, David Stocker built a pirate ship playroom for her grandchildren. She wanted things done right because of her taskmaster ways, making the results incredible.

Her friend, Misha Sanders Lentz, stated on Facebook: “The woman’s tough-as-nails exterior scared me to death. And then she showed me radical kindness at a hopeless, desperate time in my life. It quite literally changed the way I view the world.”

Leigh planned her own Irish Wake, held Sunday, Nov. 3, with at least 80 people attending. Dave Stocker’s guitar and Native American flute music made us reminiscent, merry and sad. After suffering with lung cancer for the last three months, our dear friend and colleague died Thursday, Nov. 7. Now, her powerful energy is released into the universe, as she pursues her next adventure.

To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” — J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter series

A memorial service is being planned for Leigh at 2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 23, at Unitarian Universalist Church, 4848 Turner St.

Barb Oehlke and Jane Hayes are Rockford residents.

From the Nov. 20-26, 2013, issue

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