Last August, I was having breakfast with Justine Fedak at East Bank Club when she told me she had quit drinking. She found herself having to explain to people she barely knew that her MS medication had restricted her ability to enjoy alcoholic beverages – thereby outing her as someone who has lived with Multiple Sclerosis for more than a decade. (As a long-distance runner and high-energy bank executive, her “invisible disability” was easy for her to hide.)
“That’s a story,” I told her, asking her to write a Daily Splash column for the Sun-Times. An hour later, it arrived in my inbox. I remember being stunned that someone with such a high-profile job would be willing to announce to hundreds of thousands of readers that she had an illness that might someday rob her of her ability to walk, and — ultimately — to move.
Today, Justine was honored as a “Woman on the Move” at the MS Society’s annual luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton. A lot has changed in a year. Justine and I don’t meet at the gym anymore (due to a setback in December, she now walks with a cane – but in typical Justine style, it’s a fashion cane made by a local designer). She has also become a fierce public advocate for people suffering from MS who are afraid of the social stigma that comes with revealing their disease.
As honorary event chair Cécelia Rodhe said, today was a “Justine love fest” for about 300 of her supporters. The two became fast friends six years ago when Justine negotiated BMO Harris’ sponsorship of the Bulls (Cécelia’s son Joakim Noah told his mom he had to meet this energetic “bank lady” — and Justine later helped launch his foundation.)
A video compilation that kicked off the event showed Justine’s deep tentacles in business, political and cultural circles; it included personal messages from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Michael Reinsdorf, Jonathan Toews, the cast of “Divergent” (a movie that was recently filmed in Chicago), the entire Splash staff and, of course, Joakim Noah. “You’re a little person but you’ve got the heart of a lion,” Noah said.
During lunch, Benny the Bull entered the banquet room with a giant bouquet of lilies for her (check out the smooch he gave the emcee, my husband!). And retired Walgreens chairman and former BMO Harris CEO Alan McNally introduced her to a standing ovation.
Her speech moved us all to tears. “I hide a lot of stuff but I’ve stopped hiding that I have MS,” she said. She shared that Jim Belushi, a fellow Daily Splash columnist who has become her friend, put her in touch with University of California – San Francisco professor Dr. Stephen Hauser, a pioneering MS researcher. (While I remember Jim bringing this up to her, I had no idea that she had been in contact with the research team and had become a part of their study.) Their work is a source of hope, she said.
She talked about how the management team at BMO Harris has supported her rise in the company. She’s now one of the bank’s top people: the senior vice president of brand, advertising and sponsorships for BMO Harris Group. When she started walking with a cane last winter, one co-worker joked that even if it meant he’d be reported to HR he wanted her to know she was “making gimpy sexy.”
The disease, she said, has forced her to redefine her self-image. “I remind myself how beautiful I am, broken,” she said. “It’s a gift that has forced me to look at myself differently.”
And she’s a gift to all of us who know her.
Read Splash’s coverage of the event here.