Updated 03/05/13 – 9:45 a.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Former Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, who was the first woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor, has lost her battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 86.

WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports Netsch died at her Chicago home early Tuesday morning.

Her nephew, Andrew Kerr, issued a statement on behalf of her family:

“Dawn spent her lifetime in public service at the national, state and local levels. She worked tirelessly for the right of every American to rise to their own potential free from the fear of discrimination of any sort,” he said. “Dawn was slight in stature, towering in intellect, and commanding in presence. Thank you for your thoughts and wishes at this time.”

Netsch announced in January that she had been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative nerve disorder that eventually causes paralysis and death.

Known for her “tell it like it is” style, Netsch served as a state senator for 18 years, starting in 1972. When she was elected state comptroller in 1990, she became the first woman elected to statewide office in Illinois.

She later became the first woman in Illinois to be nominated for governor, when she won the Democratic primary in 1994. She ended up losing to Republican incumbent Jim Edgar.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon had been friends with Netsch since the 1980s.

“I am so sad. Dawn was a hero, a mentor,” she said.

Simon said, along with her father, the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, and former Congressman Abner Mikva, Netsch was among the last of the old-time liberals in Illinois.

“There was a cast of characters there that really had principles, and put them to work,” she said.

Illinois State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the first woman to be elected to that position, and the first woman to win the GOP nomination for Illinois governor, remembered Netsch as “a true legend and trailblazer.”

“Dawn always remembered that government exists to serve taxpayers, not the other way around. She was a leader who was ahead of her time and our state is better for her service. More than that, she was a consummate professional and a class act. It was my honor to call her a colleague and friend,” Topinka said.

A constitutional expert, Netsch graduated from Northwestern University Law School at the top of her class in 1952. She later became one of the first female law professors in the U.S. when she joined the Northwestern faculty in 1965.

After she lost the governor’s race in 1994, she returned to Northwestern to teach, and later became a professor emeritus.

According to Kerr, the funeral service for Netsch will be private, but a public memorial will be held later.