For the Love of Sports, Education and the North Shore

Marilee Stepan Wehman of Winnetka is a woman of many facets. She worked for 3 years as an executive producer at WTTW Channel 11, the area’s PBS affiliate, on a show titled “Profile Chicago.” She was also involved in starting the WTTW auction. As a result she was honored by the Junior League as one of their “People Making a Difference.”

 

Last year, she found herself being interviewed on that same station by Carol Marin for “Chicago Tonight.” The subject? Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics and Wehman’s work on the city’s Olympic Bid Committee.

The energetic woman had won an Olympic swimming medal in Helsinki in 1952 between her junior and senior years in high school. And just before the program went on the air, Marin observed that Wehman must have gone to a great swimming school.

Her answer was a surprise.

“No, I went to Woodlands Academy in Lake Forest, no pool, no coach, no team,” she replied. “[Then] the light went on and we were on the air! Carol looked at me stunned!”

In light of the fact that Rio took the bid, Wehman expressed regret that Chicago was not chosen.

“We were beaten by a map,” she says, philosophically. “Rio’s presentation emphasized the fact that there had never been any Olympic games in South America.”

She was one of the first women and among the first Olympians to serve on the United States Olympic Committee.

“The most difficult time was when I had to vote on whether the United States should boycott the 1980 games in Moscow,” she admits. (The country did boycott the game in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afganistan.)

She is no longer on that national committee but was totally involved in the 3-year run up to Chicago’s bid.

There is, however, much more to the life of this dynamic woman. She has been, by her own account, “married forever to the same man,” Richard Wehman, and they raised their 4 children in Winnetka.

“Three of them still live on the North Shore,” she says, obviously pleased. They have 9 grandchildren, 7 of them close by.

She is a former trustee of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park and spends many summer evenings in the pavilion listening to Chicago Symphony concerts. She remains a long-time member of the Women’s Board of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. One of her daughters Alison Wehman McNally carries on that legacy as the board’s vice president for special events.

Love of opera and Lyric especially runs deep in her large, active family. Wehman is one of 7 children of Alfred C. Stepan, Jr. and his wife Mary Louise. Her father was a life-long opera fan and was invited to the join the Lyric’s board in the mid-1950s when Chicago’s new company was barely 4 years old.

Founder of Stepan Chemical Company in Wilmette, he later became a leader in establishing the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, now the Ryan Opera Center. He also served as its first chairman and Wehman herself is on the Ryan Opera Center board.

She is a member of Sacred Heart parish in Winnetka and a desire for social justice is also a part of her heritage. She was the first founding trustee of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Pilsen-Little Village area of Chicago.

“It is a brilliant concept,” she says. “The students go to school 4 days a week, and on the fifth they work in a Chicago business and earn money for their tuition.”

The trustees labored tirelessly on behalf of the students, including finding companies willing to hire them and making connections with area colleges.

“Many of the young people are the first in their families to graduate from high school,” she says, “and trustees invited college presidents in the area for lunch, one on one, and asked them to give our students scholarships, partial or otherwise. They all said yes.”

The Cristo Rey High School in Chicago has been such an unqualified success that there are now 24 Cristo Reys around the country, with 2 more to open by 2010.

A story illustrates the way in which her numerous affiliations overlap—this one between Cristo Rey and the collegiate community. Rev. John P. Foley, S.J. is the founder of Cristo Rey and last summer the Wehmans took him to a concert at Ravinia.

“I am on the Northwestern University Woman’s Board,” Wehman says, “and Henry Bienen, immediate past president of Northwestern, was at the concert. I introduced him to Father Foley and Bienen asked how many Cristo Rey students were at Northwestern.”

When he said there were 2, Bienen replied: “We should have more.”

“Cristo Rey is the best thing I have accomplished,” she says with a smile.

But the Olympics keep punctuating her life. She went into training in 1996 to be one of the runners carrying the Olympic Torch to the Atlanta Games.

She was also active during the first ParaOlympic games at Soldier Field.

“My experience at the Helsinki Games is the gift that keeps on giving,” she insists, and she has even translated it into a desire to help other young women who excel in athletics. Fifteen years ago she established the Marilee Prize at the University of Chicago, a partial scholarship to be awarded annually to a low-income high school girl who is good in sports.

“I didn’t know at the time that the Olympics would be such an important part of my life,” she concludes. “But to me my work on Chicago 2016 represents coming full circle.”