I don't write many deadline obits anymore. A shame, because it's always worthwhile to delve into somebody's life and try to form their story into a beautiful keepsake, faithful to the truth yet cognizant of the irreversible moment it is commemorating. Typically, I focus on prominent individuals with Chicago connections, people whom we don't want to be caught napping when they pass, forced to piece together something that will do in a few hours. Far better to spend years digging into their lives and sculpting them into a story.
But my former colleague Marlene Gelfond passed away two weeks ago, and the paper, on holiday skeleton staff, had no one to give her the attention she deserved. I did not know Marlene well, but I remembered her, and wanted to make sure it was taken care of properly. Plus I had time on my hands, being on vacation. Like the Marine Corps—in this if in no other regard—newspapers take care of our own, or try to. This ran Christmas Day.
When Marlene Gelfond was dying at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, with her family all around her, a woman rabbi came to visit. She said a few prayers, then urged the 81-year-old to make her peace with the world and seek forgiveness from anyone she might have wronged.
Her family burst out laughing.
“There would be no one” to apologize to, her sister Maxine Levenbrook said.
“She was the nicest, sweetest person,” added son Dan Gelfond. “Not a mean bone in her body. She literally never harmed a human being in her life. The most moral person in the world.”
Despite being a good and moral person, Gelfond who died of cancer Dec. 14, worked at a newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, much of the time as an editorial assistant to famed film critic Roger Ebert.
“Marlene Gelfond was a culture maven who appreciated many aspects of the arts, and as such was happy to work with Roger on assignments ranging from movies to the theater and appearances to promote his books and speaking engagements,” said Chaz Ebert, the film critic’s widow.
“She genuinely cared about people,” said former arts editor Laura Emerick. “She was the sweetest person in the world, full of love.”
She was born Marlene Schultz and grew up on Chicago’s West Side. Her father was a clothing salesman; her mother, a homemaker. She loved walking to the Legler Library and grew into a fan of music, ballet and the arts.
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