Longtime LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS activist and businesswoman Lauren Verdich died Feb. 12 of complications from pancreatic cancer. She was 77.
Verdich was born Dec. 30, 1945, in Chicago. She grew up in the Albany Park neighborhood before moving to Burbank, California. Her family moved back to Chicago and she graduated from Mather High School. Verdich attended the University of Illinois at Navy Pier as an art major.
For a number of years, Verdich worked a variety of corporate jobs in the wholesale industry before the entrepreneurial spirit took hold. She pursued her passion for cooking by founding Lauren's Catering in 1986.
In addition to her paid clientele, Verdich also donated goods and services worth tens of thousands of dollars to numerous nonprofits such as the Lesbian Community Cancer Project, AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Equality Illinois and Center on Halsted (formerly called Horizons). She retired in 2001, after 15 years in business.
Verdich came out as a lesbian in 1985 and quickly became an LGBTQ activist. In 1988, Verdich volunteered for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt display at Navy Pier and helped co-found Open Hand Chicago (now a division of Heartland Alliance Health).
In 2003, Verdich turned her birthday party at Sidetrack into a fundraiser for Horizons' LGBT Homeless Youth Program. One of the attendees at this party was then state Senator Barack Obama.
As one of the first out lesbian business owners in Chicago, Verdich became a well-known figure in the city including as one of the founding members in 1995 of what is now called the LGBT Chamber of Commerce Illinois.
Verdich met her wife Gail Morse when catering her 40th birthday party. Shortly after the party, Verdich asked Morse out for a drink. That led to them becoming a couple 25 years ago. They first got a civil union when it became legal in Illinois in 2011. They then converted that into full marriage rights in 2014 when marriage equality became legal in Illinois.
In addition to her philanthropic endeavors, Verdich was also very active in Democratic politics alongside Morse. They championed LGBTQ and feminist issues for many years and supported Democratic candidates in the Chicagoland area. The couple hosted Rep. Jan Schakowsky's inaugural Ultimate Women's Power Lunch in 2001 and later were the first lesbian co-chairs for Schakowsky's annual event.
The couple also supported Obama when he ran for the U.S. Senate serving on his LGBT Advisory Council and Verdich was an out delegate for Obama at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in 2008, and Verdich and Morse at the DNC in 2012.
Additionally, Verdich was appointed to Lambda Legal's National Leadership Council in 2011 and was a member of Rep. Mike Quigley's LGBT Advisory Committee for a number of years. In recent years, Verdich's role in encouraging Obama's evolution on marriage equality was featured in Tracy Baim's book, Obama and the Gays, and Marc Solomon's book, Winning Marriage.
Later in life, Verdich helped connect Rainbow Railroad leadership to potential local supporters alongside her other LGBTQ activism and political outreach. One of the final things she did was to sign on as one of the co-chairs of Schakowsky's 2023 Ultimate Women's Power Lunch.
To honor all of her achievements, Verdich was inducted into Chicago's LGBT Hall of Fame in 2015.
Verdich was preceded in death by her parents Albert and Julia Goldman. She is survived by Morse; son Jordan (Katy) Wolski and their son Zachery Wolski; daughter Dana Bennett; sisters Roberta Heinrich, Andrea (David) Reich and Linda (Curt) Mankoff; brother Steven (Abby) Isaacson; loving nieces and nephews; countless friends and those whose lives she touched.
"I was fortunate, although I didn't realize it at the time, to share so many moments with mom learning my own activism," said Jordan Wolski. "I marched with her and Dr. Spock in Mother's Day anti-nukes rallies. I got to sit in with her on the first Open Hand Chicago meetings and contributed as one of her chefs at so many charity events she donated to through Lauren's Catering. She was, is, one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. In the words of one of her hero's, the late Congressman John Lewis, 'Make good trouble.' Mom you were always making good trouble. I love you."
"Lauren, as the oldest, you possessed an immensely protective and loving place in your heart and being when it came to your 'little sister,'" said Reich. "Lauren, for you … 'My name is Muscles Goldman and I'm good enough to eat.' Your strength, knowledge and humor will live on through all you have touched. You will be in my heart always. xoxo Andy."
"While growing up, I looked to Lorri as my cool older sister," said Mankoff. "There was a 12-year difference in our ages. As an adult, I respected her commitment to making the world a better place for all by championing the issues closest to her heart. Thankfully, she met Gail, her soulmate. Gail holds a special place in our family, and always will. Lorri was a loving, kind sister, aunt to my children and great-aunt. My husband Curt and I will miss her deeply. Her fond memories will remain in our hearts, forever."
"Having a mighty sister like Lauren means having a sister who is passionate, brilliant, tough, gentle and wise," said Heinrich. "My son, nieces and nephews grew up loving their generous and politically active Auntie Lorri and because of her spirit and honesty with them, their already open minds and generous hearts grew as well. My son worked in Lauren's catering kitchen where his own passion for cooking grew. Over the years our family attended parties, marches and events, meeting Lauren's friendssmart, funny people who spoke up and showed up to rid the world of AIDS, discrimination and unjust laws, always supporting equality and equity for everyone. My rabbi and synagogue community have known Lauren and Gail for years. Because of Lauren, my family and friends are reminded that the fight for equity is soldiered by people of commitment and heart. She was a true she-ro. I love and miss her so."
"Lauren worked hard with Gail on behalf of important causes," said Isaacson. "She also knew how to have a good time. She really was one of a kind."
"Rest in Power, Lauren Verdich," said Illinois state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz. "[I am reminded of a] photo of you in the front row of the historic January 2017 Women's March in Chicago [as] a reminder of the shoulders we all stand on because of warriors like you. We will hold dear your wisdom, conviction, commitment to our community and secret recipes that will never be forgotten. See you on the other side. And yes ... we will take care of Gail."
"Lauren was one of the OGs at Open Hand," said longtime friend, fellow activist and Open Hand Chicago Co-Founder Lori Cannon. "She was there the first week of deliveries out of Ann Sather's in January 1987, where she was the route manager. She would pack the hot and cold meals into thermal bags for the drivers. One night she complained to [Ann Sather owner and soon-to-be retired Chicago Ald.] Tom Tunney she wanted larger portions, more soup in the container, more mashed potatoes, the works. Finally, Tom snapped and we all heard Lauren yell'you can't fire me Tom, I'm a volunteer.' Lauren was the real deal, she always sided with abundance. She did it her way, every time. We honor Lauren and all the efforts she made for the HIV/AIDS community of Chicago. May she RIP."
"Lauren was always a 'yes and' kind of person in everything she did," said longtime friend Bruce Koff. "In the early years at Horizons, Lauren was instrumental through her catering in supporting our fundraising efforts. At that time, places like Horizons were almost entirely dependent on the LGBTQ community itself to provide financial support. When Lauren donated her catering services it added a great deal to our efforts. In addition to being a friend, I always knew when I asked her for help she would reply with 'yes and.' She was also a wonderful connector of people and resources in the community. We are all better off for what she did."
"Lauren radiated warmth in her words, love in her touch and the occasional reproach in her cocked eyebrow," said Cook County Circuit Court Associate Judge Jim Snyder in a Facebook post. "In the '80s and '90s and beyond she bridged gaps within our community at times when we were desperate for unity. Her memory is for blessing. Our sister, our Bubbi, our Tanti. Gail, you have my whole heart."
"Lauren was a passionate and pragmatic advocate, activist and agitator for equality, women's rights, LGBTQ rights and social justice," said friend and Chicago Cubs Co-Owner Laura Ricketts. "For decades, she rolled up her sleeves to co-found and generously support countless organizations and efforts that helped bring together and strengthen the LGBTQ community. In a sense, one could say that she was a co-founder of the Chicago LGBTQ community as we know it. She was a lovely, caring and kind friend who always spoke her truth. She was also an avid Cubs fan, and I always enjoyed her loyalty and enthusiasm for the team."
"Very sad to learn this news," said friend Ted Boles in a Facebook post. "Our spouses were law partners together at Jenner and Block a few years back and she championed many local charities. She was so cherished and loved in our communities."
"I don't recall who connected me to Lauren's catering [company] back in the day, but it was a blessing," said friend Lena Flavin in a Facebook post. "Nothing ever ruffled her feathers, cool, calm and collected is how she was. Lauren trusted and valued each of her employees' opinions. She was a breath of fresh air to a young chef like me. Collaboration was the name of the game and flirting on the clock was highly encouraged. I have remained friends with Lauren since working for her, we would send recipes and cute tidbits back and forth often. I will miss you Lauren very much. She always let you know she loved you. My most sincere condolences to you Gail Morse and to Jordan. Rest easy my friend."
"We lost one of the most beautiful friends anyone could have," said longtime friend Jan Dee. "Lauren lit up a room with her smile. She entertained frequently and always made enough food so that everyone would have a leftover package. I even got to meet Barack Obama at her Sidetrack birthday party. When I was in his presence that night, I knew he would do even greater things politically.
"Lauren, actually worked at Jan Dee Jewelry and was quite the salesperson. One day I walked in the store and she told me she sold the clock off the wall. We never stopped smiling about that. Lauren loved her job and was always 'on' when she was behind the sales counter. When my parents came to town, Lauren invited us to her house to eat the 40 lobsters she bought. Needless to say, they were wonderful to eat, talk about and have plenty of leftovers.
"Our friendship goes back to the early 1970s. Each year was filled with many wonderful memories. We called each other 'my Sister' or she called me 'Janito' and I called her 'Laurenza.' Goodbye my sister until we meet again, your Janito."
"It is with a heavy heart that we announce the loss of a member of the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame family, Lauren Verdich," said longtime friend and Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame Board Co-Chair Rick Karlin. "I remember meeting Lauren at her home alongside Lori Cannon and others to discuss how Open Hand would work and her involvement was essential in getting it off the ground. Her catering company was the go-to provider for LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS galas and fundraisers for many years. Lauren's dedication, planning and operational skills were exemplary and essential for many organizations. We jokingly referred to Lauren, Jan Dee, Joanne Trapani, Amy Maggio and others as the lesbian cabal that ran Chicago. They were a force to reckoned with. My son called them his aunts.
"Her death is especially difficult for me as Lauren and I were very close. She was my long-lost sister and although geography separated us, she was always in my thoughts. We spent many Thanksgiving holidays together. I will miss her terribly. My deepest condolences to her wife, another member of the Hall of Fame family, Gail Morse."
A celebration of life will take place in San Diego the weekend of April 22-23 and in Chicago the weekend of May 20-21. Details TBA.