Chicago activist Renae Ogletree, 59, died April 23, after a recurrence of lung cancer that had spread throughout her body.
A public memorial service was held Saturday, May 1, 11 a.m. at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, followed by a reception at the same location. Public parking is available one block north in Lincoln Park.
In recent weeks, friends provided Ogletree assistance, as she fought back against the cancer. She was able to live most of her final days at home, thanks to the support of friends and even strangers in the community.
Youth issues were perhaps closest to her heart, and in a bit of fateful timing, the Illinois House of Representatives unanimously passed an anti-bullying law the same day Ogletree died.
Ogletree's most recent job was with the Chicago Public Schools, in the post-secondary education and student development office of high schools and high school programs. She had previously been director of youth services for the City of Chicago and was nationally known as a youth professional advocate for Positive Youth Development. Her job experience also included working with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago, the Better Boys Foundation, Chapin Hall Center for Children and the Chicago Youth Agency Partnership.
Ogletree was also known to Michelle and Barack Obama for her work, and she was Michelle's escort for a 2004 Lesbian Community Cancer Project benefit at South Shore Cultural Center, when Barack was running for U.S. Senate. On March 18, 2010, Barack Obama sent the following letter to Ogletree on White House stationery: "Dear Renae: I recently learned about the challenges you face, and I want you to know how much I admire your strength. My thoughts are with you, your family, and friends. In trying times, each of us can draw on the power of hope, determination, perseverance, and faith. I hope you find strength and comfort in these principles, as I have. As you continue your brave battle, please know that you will be in my prayers. Sincerely, Barack Obama.
Inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1998, Ogletree was involved in dozens of organizations and issues. She was on the board for Gay Games VII, and helped in both of Chicago's bidding efforts to get the Gay Games. She was a co-founder of Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays and was with The Color Triangle. She was active in Lesbian Community Cancer ( Care ) Project, the Belmont Rocks, Yahimba, Horizons, and many more. She also participated in the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and on the Chicago Police Department's 23d District Gay and Lesbian Advisory Committee.
In 1997 she received the Chicago Commission on Human Relations Award.
In the mid 1990s Ogletree helped negotiate a controversy in the community surrounding the original AIDS Walk. There were concerns the annual event was not funding agencies that reflected the diversity of those impacted by the disease, and Ogletree was not afraid to ruffle feathers by confronting those in charge.
"Renae was quite passionate about any type of injustice and at the same time completely irreverent to the point of being crazy-making," said Mary Morten. Ogletree's last public appearance was at Morten's birthday party Feb. 13, where she mingled and danced with friends.
"She had a fierce commitment to young people and that's what brought her to Chicago," Morten said. "She will always hold a special place in my heart for many reasons, one of them being that she introduced me to my partner of 11 years at a conference. You just never know how relationships will impact your life. There just won't ever be anyone like her."
A native of Passaic, N.J., Ogletree was one of six children. Two of her brothers were gay and died of AIDS complications.
While in New Jersey, Ogletree began her activism, including helping to elect Hackensack's first Black politician, something that she said resulted in her home being set on fire and other harassment.
In a 2007 interview I conducted with Ogletree for www.ChicagoGayHistory.org , she elaborated on her early activism. She said she grew up during the era of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers, and she idolized Angela Davis. Her passion was working on youth issues. "Young people keep me thinking, alive and progressive. I also know I wouldn't be sitting here today with a master's in sociology if some adult hadn't helped me," Ogletree said at the time. "Any great change that has happened in this country, it's because of young people."
What brought her to Chicago around age 30 was her work on youth. If she'd stayed in New Jersey, she said she probably would have run for office, maybe even mayor of Hackensack. But she was disillusioned with politics and how it worked. She came to work for the Chicago Boys Clubs, and was in the closet for the first three years, until the late 1980s. She eventually came out so that she would not be outed.
As she became more active in the LGBT community, that work included helping host a large Black LGBT conference in Chicago in the early 1990s, Unity, and co-founding Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays, an incubator organization. Out of that a group formed to march in the African-American Bud Billiken Parade on Chicago's South Side.
About 25 people marched in that 1993 parade. "Personally I need to be honest and say that was a bigger coming out for me than coming out in front of fellow LGBTs," Ogletree said. "I was finally coming home. I had finally come full [ circle ] . I was not hiding behind my job … family. … At that time I was at the University of Chicago as a researcher, so I knew all these people [ at the parade ] . … I have a feeling of what it must have felt like for Martin Luther King marching over that bridge … I just knew after that day I wouldn't be the same anymore, and I wasn't. … I've had to fight with everybody in this community, but I've also experienced love from everybody."
Ogletree was first diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001. "I lead a very blessed life. … I can honestly sit here and say this community has played a major role in my being able to sit here. In 2001, I was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. Gave me 3-6 months to live. … I'm really here because of the community. … I moved out here without anyone. When I got this diagnosis in 2001, I didn't have a partner at the time … I was alone … this community surrounded me with such love," Ogletree said.
"I want people to remember me as a visionary, as a bridge builder," Ogletree said. "As someone who was very honest, who would call it as they see it. As someone who was willing to work on issues, raise them, but willing to work on them as well. As someone who believes in young people, and their future, and their voice. … Probably most important as someone who knew how to laugh and have a good time, and get some work done."
"At this time of Renae's passing, much focus will be on her amazing achievements on behalf of LGBT and African-American people," said Toni Armstrong Jr., former member of The Color Triangle coalition and GLSEN ( Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network ) . "I'd like to encourage folks to find out about and remember Renae's commitment to young people as well. And, lesbian Chicago has just lost one of our most fun party animals."
Vernita Gray was among those posting on Facebook the day of Ogletree's death. She thanked her Facebook "family and friends for all your prayers and food and love for my dear friend Renae. Renae passed this morning at 11 a.m. leaving a huge friend void in my life. Please remember her family and friends in your prayers and chants."
Ogletree is survived by her niece, Tanesha Ogletree Clark, and great niece Anaya Renae Clark; brother Oscar Ogletree Jr., sister-in-law Joyce Ogletree and nephew Raheem Ogletree; brother James Ogletree, sister-in-law Frederica Ogletree, nephew Carlton Ogletree and niece Carla Ogletree; sister-in-law Pawnee Ogletree, nephew Edward Ogletree, Jr., niece Cheyenne Gail Ogletree. She was preceded in death by her parents Mary and Oscar Ogletree, her sister Gail, and her brothers Randy and Edward. She is also survived by a large number of friends around the city, country and world.
In lieu of flowers, donations are being accepted for a trust fund for her 3-year-old grandniece, Anaya. Make checks to: Anaya Renae Clark Trust Fund, and send care of Windy City Times, 5315 North Clark St., #192, Chicago, IL 60640.
For a video interview with Ogletree, see www.chicagogayhistory.com/video_bio.html .
Personal reflections, Tracy Baim
I have written hundreds of obituaries for our community, starting in 1984 in the early years of AIDS. It is never an easy task, but it is always an honor. To summarize the life of anyone is difficult, and it is even harder when you call that person a friend.
I was among the people at Mary Morten's birthday party Feb. 13, where Renae arrived with her oxygen tank and a big smile. She danced a bit, and started to have a difficult time breathing. I asked Sharon Mylrea if she could drive Renae in Renae's car home and I would follow. But as soon as Renae got in the car, she realized the pain was too much, and we went to the hospital. The evening was difficult, as her close friend Vernita Gray and her partner Pat Ewert arrived, and then Renae's niece, Tanesha, came.
Renae went into a coma for many days, and friends came to say their final goodbyes. It was difficult for everyone. But like Lazarus, Renae managed to come out of the coma and was able to go into hospice care, first in the hospital, and then mostly at home.
Her roommate Janet Saltzman was amazing, as were friends Mary Morten, Vernita Gray and Lori Cooper. Dozens more helped out as they could. I started raising money through friends and strangers, through Facebook and Windy City Times. Money came in to help cover her care, given that her Chicago Public School insurance was inadequate.
As with her previous times of illness, I was able to spend more time with Renae than our otherwise busy lives would usually allow. My partner Jean and I did a few of the overnight shifts, knowing those times would be precious moments spent talking life, politics and community. Renae was in pain, and had difficulty breathing, but she wanted to stay connected to the community she so loved.
I have met thousands of activists in our community over the past 26 years. Few have come close to the appeal and accomplishments of Renae on both a personal and professional level. I served on the Gay Games board with her, and covered her at community meetings and events countless times. She could bridge so many parts of our community, and attended a wide range of events to prove we are more the same than different. But she was no token, and she challenged both homophobia in the Black community, and racism in the LGBT community.
My fondest memories of Renae are dancing with her at LCCP events, taking her photo with a wide range of people, and just sitting at her bedside contemplating life. She at first did not want to let go, she was afraid of disappointing her friends and family. But I assured her that she had to make her own decision, and she knew her time was coming. I so wished for her to have a painless ending, but also wanted to have more talks.
The final gift Renae gave our community was coming out of that coma, and allowing us all a few weeks to say hello again, and goodbye. I can't imagine a community without Renae, but through tears, laughter, and dancing, we will pay tribute to her by never forgetting who she was.
Windy City Times asked community members and her colleagues to make comments about Ogletree. We will add more comments as they come in.
Mona Noriega: "Each of us can claim a unique and special bond with Renae, but none of us can claim to have known her completelyin that way Renae was forever ephemeral, beyond reach … and always beyond reproach. She was dramatic, she was tantalizing, intoxicating, and yet so innocent and vulnerable, inviting and then receding upon approach. Renae's gift was her quick wit and insightfulness. For any of us who had the privilege, or challenge, of having Renae in a meeting, she could quickly assess a situation, identify the points of contention, and reframe the issue on the table, changing the cleavage lines along which an issue was divided. You always wanted Renae on your side to champion your idea, to find comfort in her laughter and beguiling charm, but you could never assume that friendship would shield you from an intellectual challengeand she was forever challenging.
"Challenging was an innate part of how Renae played, loved, and fought the battles that needed to be fought for our community. She was a lightning rod for issues, a role she took to heart. She could walk into a meeting and change the direction, or she could as easily quickly assess a situation and decide she was in the mood for entertainment. What you did not want was for Renae to be mad at you as she could craft a logical and sustainable argument in a heartbeat. And, if you were a woman who might be the object of her affection, words and charm were her specialties.
"In the days before she passed, Renae was concerned that after her passing people would be mad at herand I had to assure her that she was correct. Like during the campaign for the Gay Games, there was a woman who was so hot to sleep with her, she would follow us around with puppy eyes eager to engage, she never forgave Renae for not choosing her. Or in the early days of the AIDS Walk, some might still be mad at her for bringing attention to the funding strategies and for mobilizing the community, but we are thankful for that. And it is the we, those of us who loved her who matter, we are not mad at her, and in fact many of us have been blessed to have had the opportunity to laugh with her, laugh at her, be mad at her, get really mad at her, and then make up and laugh it all away. And then later when she needed it, some of us would argue with her about her health, about smoking, about the need to eat, rub in lotion on her scars, and still talk about dates and women she could try to make it withoxygen tank and all. With Renae I am crying one day, laughing the next, all the way to the end, holding her and wishing I could absorb some of the pain. I am certainly not mad at her, but will so miss her."
"I know Renae unlike any other. Our friendship began through the doorway of Gay Games. Renae was passionate about education. She LOVED her work with children, she adored the kids. She loved educating adults working with children. She was passionate about gay rights and her years of advocacy work speaks for itself. She loved her family and friends and of course Leo her dog. … The one thing I learned from Renae is 'LIVE LIFE EVERY DAY' because there is only one time to do so. … Renae was a tough, stubborn force who would give me and those she loved the shirt off her back. The one thing Renae would always say to me when she knew she was on my last nerve is 'one day you will miss me'. And I do."
"I'll always remember the day we met. It was May, 1993, right after the LGBT March on Washington. My friend Steve Wakefield and I had just returned to Chicago from D.C. and we had vowed to bring home the excitement of that national event by organizing a new networking group. It would be dubbed Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays, and Renae Ogletree would be at its core.
"I was rushing between community meetings one night and stopped at the Closet bar just to read the papers and relax. There was a large crowd, and at the center was a lively gathering of friends. Among them I saw Renae. As would always be the case with her, she was generously sharing her buoyant joy of living spirit and keen sense of humor. I decided to meet and recruit this electric personality with a sparkling smile to join our new group. We talked and she was interested.
"At the very first CBLG meeting, Renae, the charming and witty socialite, revealed another side of her personashe was thoughtful, intensely intellectual, and a natural born leader. We served together for five years as co-chairs of CBLG. As we forged ahead with hundreds of large and small successes and achievements, Renae proved to be an inspiring partner in leading our crucial work. She was always there to support and unite Black LGBTQs across the city, to forge new coalitions on community issues, and to lead our challenges to racism and sexism within our LGBT community and homophobia in our Black community.
"In every effort Renae leveraged her tremendous skills and talents, great insights, fearless passion, and a constant eagerness to learn more and do more. Of course, she also brought laughter to every project. Renae was especially attuned to 'young folks' and the need to not only welcome but affirmatively invite their voices to our efforts. That was a reflection of her beliefs and lifelong professional career.
"I celebrate Renae and all that she was. There are few things in life as important as giving your love and help to children and youth, or as noble as making a personal commitment to volunteerism and sacrifice to serve others and your community. Our friend Renae did all that and more. She was great lady. She was noble multiplied 100 times over."
Sharon ( Sherri ) Jackson:
"I remember partying with Renae at her residence at Elaine Place in Chicago long before we began the journey of community activism work together. Renae gave some of the best parties, drawing a diverse group of people together in laughter, fun, and love. I never would dream these parties would connect us together in the future fighting in the struggle performing activism duties.
"We worked on such groups together as Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays, Horizons Community Services, Victory Fund, and many more. Renae had a passion for youth issues. She was full of life, fun, and work. I learned so much from her as we worked side by side in the community. I will always recall are private conversations and her mentoring me.
"What I will always recall about Renae was her tenacity, love, hope, and being full of life. She taught me life is to be lived to its fullest and that is what Renae did, she lived a full life. Thanks Renae for allowing me to be in your space. Much Love."
"Renae was an inspiration to me and everyone in the Chicago 2006 organization. She constantly challenged us to do better and stepped up at every chance to ensure the success of the 2006 Gay Games for all Chicagoans. She contributed more to our city than many people will ever know and I am very sad to lose her."
"In the year 2000, Adodi Chicago held a forum to ponder what this new century will bring. At the top of the list of people considered 'most likely to succeed' was Renae Ogletree. We expected her to be an outstanding contributor to improving the quality of life and to encouraging the many lives she touched. She greatly exceeded our expectations with a smile. It is with great sorrow to learn of her passing."
"While working with the City of Chicago as Director of Youth Services, Renae was instrumental in bringing Program Standards to city-funded youth programs as well as the catalyst behind youth workers becoming a true profession. Renae had a true passion for all youth, she believed in them, had high expectations and gave them voices in funding programs as well as making decisions. Caring adults are key to young people's success and Renae was in fact one of those leaders in Chicago."
"I have known Renae for about 12 years, having met her when she was at Chapin Hall. We worked together at the Chicago Youth Agency Partnership and last year, I invited her to be the graduation speaker at our high school. Renae inspired everyone who heard her speak that day, and I continue to get positive comments about her talk. I most recently had the privilege of visiting Renae at home during her final weeks and I must say, she had not lost one bit of her special brand of humor! She will always be remembered as a true icon of community activism and he passion for positive youth development will be hard to surpass. I will miss her."
Lydia C. Nantwi:
"I am deeply saddened by this news. Renae was so very special and I will miss her."
"She was a force, and I am stronger and fiercer for having known her. Adding to her list of accomplishments, I am proud to note that then-Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley ( and me as the women's commissioner ) recognized her as the Cook County Commission on Women's Issues unsung heroine for the 17th District in 2003. She was truly a heroine to the LGBT Community, to Cook County, to Illinois and to all the young ( and not so young ) lives her advocacy and passion impacted. When I called to tell her about the award, her response was 'Thanks, but I don't deserve it.' Of course she did. We will miss her."
Grace Lee DeShazer:
"Girl you know we had some 'good times' at CPS, especially at meetings: you, taking the lead, even when you were not supposed to be, laughing because you were right and folks were getting annoyed. Called you the morning of April 23rd because I baked a candy pie for youI never could fathom how you could ingest so much sugar … . Anyway, since I'll never be able to kick your butt at golf on this side of Jordan, I'll keep practicing and will let Tiger know, he'll survive this, too. Seriously, girl, I am a better person and a stronger advocate for children because of you. I know you can't sit still for longer so, please tell Anne Frank, those Four Little Black Girls from Birmingham, and Derius from Fenger High School, your friends left behind will continue the good fight."
"She was a passionate and direct activist, who knew all too well the devastation of AIDS. In her short time, she left quite a mark on the GLBT community, and certainly won't be forgotten."
"Renae's impact on the youth of Chicago cannot be measured but it will be lasting. Her ability to help the adults understand student voice and then create protocols and ways to capture that voice will be with us forever. As an educator for over 40 years, I never stopped learning from Renae. Rest in Peace."
"I am feeling a great emptiness in my life with Renae's passing. There are not many people who have shown such a commitment to helping others and serving their community. Renae was definitely one of a kind. She will be sadly missed."
"Devastating news. I met Renae while managing Gentry bar, liked her immediately and came to love and respect her as a fellow Gay Games VII board member. The world and Chicago have lost a treasured friend, valuable asset and tremendous advocate today."
"I had the honor to meet Renae when I joined the board of Chicago Games Inc. I learned so much from Renae about what it means to be an
activist and a fighter. I am truly saddened to hear of Renae's passing and offer my condolences to her family and friends."
"I met Renae a few years before Gay Games VII and always found her to be smiling, positive, and full of enthusiasm. At the Gay Games VII
Opening Ceremony, I had the distinct privilege to walk into Soldier
Field hand-in-hand with Renae as the Chicago Games, Inc. and [ Federaton of Gay Games ] teams marched in together. We were blessed to have her support, and send our condolences to Renae's friends and family and the entire CGI team."
"I will truly miss a sister who has walked and talked a lot of us through some rough times. She was a remarkable woman that gave so much to so many. She was a role model for how every gay man and woman should live. I love you infinitely, FIERCE sister."
"In 2008 we had the luck to meet up in Las Vegas. Especially great since we seemed to have a hard time getting together in Chicago with our busy schedules. Renae was there with Wanda Sykes, who had come out that weekend at a rally for Marriage Equality. One thing that stood out for me is when Renae said, 'I've never gone to a protest in a limo before'!! And yet, we know she attended many, and certainly deserved one now and then!"
Ms Pat McCombs:
"I believe we are all put on this earth for a reason. Some do the job or some let the job do them. Renae was one who did the job well. She had a strong passion toward anything she went out for. She had a way with words and could articulate serious matters through a humorous approach. When she spoke people listened because they knew Renae would give you the true facts. She gave her heart,body and soul to many causes in the LGBT community. Her dedication will never be forgotten. She was small in statue but large in presence. We were all blessed to have had her in our lives. She has done A GREAT JOB!!!"
"There are so many great things people can and will say about Renae. I will remember her always for her passion and commitment to change and her laugh. I called her Weds morning of this past week not knowing how bad her health was. And was to coming to Chicago to visit on Thursday. Unfortunately, I never got that time to say goodbye in person, but at least one last time I got to call her, thank her, and tell her how much she meant to me. When she heard my tears through the line -- hundreds of miles away -- she told me, 'come on now, I can hear it n your voice…don't be upset.' She was even strong in her last days. Still sensitive to others, trying to make it easier for them ( for me ) ."