When Diane Mayer’s husband, Dick, the former CEO of Kraft, retired, it seemed like they would finally have more time to spend together and to do all the things they had wanted to do for so long, including traveling more, spending time at their winter home in Boca Grande, Fla., and enjoying their grandchildren, Eady and Tripton, who live in Wilmette. But life threw a major stumbling block in their path.
They were vacationing in Rhode Island in 2004 when they got the diagnosis. Dick, then 64, wasn’t feeling well and decided to visit the doctor. This turned into a trip to the emergency room and an immediate end to their vacation. He had acute leukemia.
“I was devastated,” Mayer remembers. “I felt like my life had changed, which it had.”
Within days of the initial diagnosis, treatment began, and Mayer’s husband had several weeks of serious chemotherapy back in Chicago. It seemed to work, until he relapsed almost two years later. This sent him back to chemo for six months with additional treatments, which included a major stem cell transplant that severely weakened his immune system. Mayer remembers the process as “arduous.”
“That was tough, but he came through,” she says. “I just tried to make his life as comfortable as I could, to keep the ship going smoothly through the waters, and we were very lucky, because our two daughters were right there [in Chicago], taking all the notes and looking everything up on the Internet.”
Her husband’s illness gave her a newfound appreciation for the computer because she could send out mass emails to friends and family updating them on his health. The fam- ily’s large group of friends rallied around them, sending gifts to keep Dick busy in the hospital, including books (which he sometimes wasn’t well enough to read, Mayer says) and music.
The good news: He has been in remission since 2006.
“Whatever life gives you, you have to deal with it,” Mayer says. “It’s impossible to live a life without adversity. Just put one foot in front of the other. You don’t think you can do it, but you can, because you have to. You have no choice.”
And Mayer, a former teacher, has certainly kept herself moving forward. As an avid volunteer, she has served on the boards and women’s boards of numerous cultural institutions in Chicago, including the Women’s Board of the Field Museum, the board of the Harris Theater, and the Women’s Board of the Brookfield Zoo. She is a past president of the Women’s Board of the Lyric Op- era and past president of the Woman’s Club of Boca Grande, Fla.
In order to add some semblance of normalcy, she kept her volunteer obligations going even through her husband’s two rounds of treatments. In fact, her proudest philanthropic accomplishment is raising $2 million with the Women’s Board of the Lyric Opera to endow the Women’s Board General Director Endowed Chair in loving memory of former General Director ardis Krainik, to ensure that the opera will be alive and well in Chicago for many years to come.
She lives by her husband’s favorite quote, from Winston Churchill: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”
— Liz Logan