Date of Birth: December 3, 1923
Date of Death:
Place of Birth: New York, New York
Policy-Maker, Elected Official, Educator
Kathie Straus and her husband, Everet, moved to Detroit in 1952 from New York, the city of her birth. Kathie had never expected to become a long-time Michigander. She attended Hunter College in New York City, an outstanding public college for women, which offered a free college education. After graduation in 1944, Kathie went to work for one year as a teacher in a junior high in the South Bronx. Soon she decided she needed to "spread [her] wings" and moved to Washington, DC, where she worked from 1945 to 1947 at the Treasury Department. Kathie's major, economics, was important in her job analyzing and evaluating spending and policies.
"When I graduated from Hunter College, I wanted to go into the foreign service, but I was told they did not take Jews, and I would not likely be hired. So, I chose other ways to serve."
During this time, Kathie met her husband, Everet, at a meeting of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). They married in 1948. When Everet landed a job opportunity with a cigar manufacturer, the couple moved to Detroit, first to an apartment on Monte Vista on the northwest side, and then to a home on Sorrento.
In Detroit Kathie immediately became involved in a school millage campaign and as a volunteer with the Jewish Welfare Federation. She "got to know people in the schools and the Jewish community." It was at that time that her "life was launched in Detroit." Having young children did not keep her from attending League of Women Voters meetings in the evening. Apart from her non-partisan work, Kathie stuffed envelopes for Adlai Stevenson for President and met many people who became friends for life.
Ten years later, in 1962, she was elected president of the League of Women Voters of Detroit. During her tenure, she asked Detroit Mayor Jerry Cavanagh to speak at the organization's annual meeting. Three years later she became co-chair of his re-election campaign.
Later, through her involvement with the State Board of the League of Women Voters, Kathie developed "Town Meeting of the Air," at Channel 4. The program featured well-known political figures who appeared before a live audience. Through this program she met Ambassador W. Averill Harriman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Senator Jacob Javits, and other prominent leaders. She produced thirty-nine shows in total.
Sadly, in 1967 on Thanksgiving Day, Kathie's husband died. Their two children, Barbara and Peter, were 11 and 16. Mayor Cavanagh called Kathie and said, "When you're ready, I'd like you to come down and help me out." Kathie became Director of Community Renewal, where she learned to write grants.
While working for the Mayor, Kathie was involved with one of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty programs, the Model Neighborhood Agency. From there she headed to SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments), where she continued her analysis of government, this time examining education. Kathie found her true calling: a consistent and persistent desire to improve public education for all students in Michigan.
She continued her work on education and worked with state Senator Jack Faxon. She had worked with the senator in 1963 when he was a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention. Although they were on different sides of an issue, she and Faxon became good friends. Later, he hired Kathie to be the staff director on the state Senate Education Committee, where she worked on the school code and learned in detail about the legislative process. This led to a job as Michigan Association of School Boards Director for Government Relations. No woman had ever served as a lobbyist. During her time there, she "stopped some bad legislation," always working in a bipartisan manner.
In the 1970s Kathie served as the first woman to be president of the Detroit Chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
In l986 Jack Faxon, a passionate advocate for arts and culture, played a role in Kathie's new position, developing fundraising and community relations for the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. After ten years of commuting to Lansing, Kathie was happy to return to work in Detroit. She soon became president of the center and served in that capacity for almost five years.
In 1991 at the age of 68, Kathie "retired." It was short lived. Soon, friends involved with the Michigan School Board asked her to run for the State Board of Education. She was elected in 1992 for a term that would end in 2001. She was re-elected for two additional terms. In total she served for twenty-four years on the Michigan Board of Education, half of the time serving as its president.
Kathie worked to develop policy to peacefully implement the court-ordered desegregation of Detroit Public Schools. She worked to develop a better way to fund public schools without depending primarily on property taxes.
From 2000 to 2002, Kathie served as president of the Jewish Community Council (now JCRC/AJC). She states, "I loved the intergroup and interracial relations work and remember working on a position against school vouchers."
Always concerned about fairness, justice, and the quality of a good education, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anti-Defamation League and the Wade H. McCree Jr. Award for Social Justice from the Federal Bar Association. She was presented with the Distinguished Warrior Award from the Detroit Urban League. She was selected to the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 2000.
"My parents were role models. I was taught that everyone is the same. All people must be treated with respect. I tried to right the wrongs I saw around me, and I have personal satisfaction that I was able to help constituents - sometimes as individuals and sometimes collectively through good policy."
Kathleen Straus married the Honorable Walter Shapero when she was 84 years old in 2008. Together, they continue an active life of community involvement.
Interview by Jeannie Weiner September 3, 2020. Biography approved by Kathleen Straus.