CHICAGO (CBS) — Calling her “an inspiration with a heart of gold,” aldermen and Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday paid tribute to Karen Lewis, the former Chicago Teachers Union president who passed away earlier this month.

“She served as one of the most outspoken, charismatic, and legendary, and transformative leaders in the union’s history,” Lightfoot said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “The legacy that Karen leaves behind is one that will continue to inspire people from near and far to keep fighting for what they believe in, and to use the power of collective action to demand righteous change.”

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Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), a former school counselor who was the first CTU member to be elected to the City Council, said Lewis was the reason she ran for office in 2015.

“She was an inspiration with a heart of gold. Karen taught me so much during our time together. She had a wicked sense of humor, and she always kept her word,” Garza said. “Despite my reservations, she believed in me when others thought it was impossible. She said, ‘Garza, you’re already the mayor of the 10th Ward.’”

Garza said Lewis’ own words still motivate her to this day.

“’Does it unite us? Does it build our power? Does it make us stronger?’ Those were three phrases that Karen lived by, and every decision she made came from those three phrases. Those words hang in my office today,” she said.

Several aldermen recalled Lewis as a labor leader with a sharp wit, a hilarious sense of humor, and an indomitable spirit.

“She was a fighter for the many, and that’s how I remember her, as a fighter for the many, as a person who believed in being a mentor,” said Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd).

“To call her a firecracker wouldn’t be enough to say. She was more of a stick of dynamite. So she was a hugely, unbelievably a true labor leader,” said Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th).

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), a former teacher, said while she didn’t become an alderman  until after Lewis had retired from CTU, “I am incredibly grateful that I got to be in this city at the same time as Karen Lewis.”

“I am grateful for the legacy that she has left of incredible labor leaders that are charting a new path for labor rights, or bargaining for the common good,” Sanchez said.

A former chemistry teacher at three Chicago high schools, Lewis was president of the Chicago Teachers Union from 2010 to 2018, and in 2012, she led a Chicago teachers strike against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It was the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years.

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Following that strike, Lewis later considered challenging Emanuel in the 2015 election. At least one poll had Lewis beating Emanuel, but in October 2014 she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. She ended up backing Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who forced Emanuel into a runoff, the first ever in a Chicago mayor’s race.

After months of treatment, she resumed her role as president and secured a third term as CTU president as contract talks heated up and strike talks resurfaced. At the last hour in October 2016, the second walkout under her leadership was averted.

She continued her public school crusade fighting furloughs and budget cuts.

A stroke in October 2017 sidelined Lewis again. In 2018, Lewis retired as the union’s president. But for many the outspoken, albeit controversial leader had already secured her spot in Chicago history.

Lewis underwent a medical procedure and had been battling health issues for several years.

She passed away on Feb. 7/

“She will be missed for her fearless, strategic, and powerful leadership. She’s definitely left an indelible mark not only on this city, but in education throughout this country,” said Ald. Sophia King (4th).

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who was friends with Lewis for more than 30 years, said the former union president would have been proud of all the accolades she received from the City Council on Wednesday.

“She was a fighter, a real fighter; not just on the front lines, not just for the kids, for the people; but she was also a fighter in terms of her life and her illness,” she said. “She kept it real. You always knew where she stood, and she was that way until the very end.”

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) recalled attending an endorsement session with the CTU in 2015 when he first ran for office.

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“I don’t know whether I was more nervous about meeting Karen Lewis, or the interview itself, but I was excited about the opportunity to meet her. I was excited about the opportunity to be in a position to even learn from her just a little bit about her passion for a more equitable school system,” he said.

CBS 2 Chicago Staff