Bicentennial Bios: Michelle Obama

Bicentennial Bios: Michelle Obama

To commemorate the Land of Lincoln turning 200 in 2018, we'll ask biographers of famous former Illinoisans to tell us stories throughout the year.

Today: South Side-raised former first lady MICHELLE OBAMA, salutatorian of Whitney Young High School's Class of 1981

By: Northwestern journalism Professor Peter Slevin, author of 'Michelle Obama: A Life'

"Michelle Obama always had a clear-eyed view of the workings of politics and business in Illinois. In 2004, introducing her husband, one Barack Obama, a state legislator fighting his way through a field of better-known Democratic opponents in a race for the U.S. Senate, she said, 'I am tired of just giving the political process over to the privileged, to the wealthy, to people with the right daddy.'

"Long before she became a household name famous for opening the White House doors to countless children who had never dreamed of stepping inside, Michelle was doing her bit to spread opportunity to Chicagoans accustomed to being left out when the power brokers calculated clout and awarded contracts. She achieved results entirely independent of her increasingly famous husband.

"As a University of Chicago hospital executive, she pushed her colleagues to change traditional contracting patterns that favored old-line firms typically run by white men. Between 2002 and 2008, 42.9 percent of the medical center's spending on new construction, a total of $48.8 million, went to firms run by minorities or women, the university reported. In her final year on the job, the medical center channeled another $16.2 million to such firms for goods and services.

"Kenneth P. Kates, the hospital's chief operating officer, recalled a meeting where the white owner of a large firm thought he could nod agreeably and ignore the minority hiring requirements. Michelle, however, was 'tenacious,' according to Kates, and the man received no more business until he met the hospital's demands.

"She was tough, but she experienced plenty of frustration, too. She once shared a lesson about patience and persistence that she borrowed from Barack, the obscure state senator who lost a race for Congress by 30 points, only to become president less than a decade later.

"Speaking to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, she said that when 'it seems like all is lost,' Barack reminds her 'that we are playing a long game here, and that change is hard, and change is slow, and it never happens all at once. But eventually we get there; we always do.'"

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