Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough dies at 73 after being hospitalized in critical condition

ByChuck Goudie, Maher Kawash, and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Tom Jones WLS logo
Monday, April 8, 2024
Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough dies at 73
Karen Yarbrough, Cook County Clerk and a longtime Illinois political figure, has died after being hospitalized with an undisclosed illness.

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Tributes have been pouring in to remember the legacy Karen Yarbrough left on Cook County and Illinois.

Yarbrough's family is keeping her cause of death private, but ABC7 is told she had been sick for some time.

Her colleagues say this is a loss for the entire political world. People are trying to find the words to honor Yarbrough, the first Black person ever elected to the office of Cook County clerk.

You could look her in the eye, and she had empathy for you
Maria Pappas

The 73-year-old trailblazer was taken to the hospital last week for an undisclosed medical condition, and the news of her death is being felt everywhere.

"Her loss is devastating, because all the new people coming into politics just don't have what she had. She was honest. She was straight. She didn't have two stories. You could look her in the eye, and she had empathy for you," said Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.

ABC7 Political Analyst Laura Washington discusses the legacy of Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough.

Pappas was close friends with Yarbrough and said they always had a special bond together. She shared a special moment with Yarbrough when she visited her just last week.

"I went over to see her, and we actually spent about an hour and a half talking about dying, and we were both sitting there, and we were crying, and the end of the conversation, we both kind of knew it was over for her," Pappas said.

Yarbrough was serving her second term as Cook County clerk after first being elected to the position in 2018. She was known for her leadership in the West Side Proviso Township and previously served as a state representative for 11 years.

She listened to the people. I think that was one of the remarkable things about her
Richard Boykin

Former West Side Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin worked hand-in-hand with Yarbrough over the years. He says this is a loss for the entire state.

"She listened to the people. I think that was one of the remarkable things about her, and not just that, but she was a consensus builder. She was someone who was able to reach across the aisle and get things done in a meaningful way," Boykin said.

Yarbrough's family issued a statement, saying, in part, "so many of us stand on her shoulders and are actively walking pathways that she forged. As a public servant, she had the courage to stand in support of issues that were not always popular, but she knew them to be right."

Other tributes have been pouring in from elected officials.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle called her "a trailblazer and a friend who always advocated for what she believed was right."

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson says "she was both a pioneer and a tireless legislator."

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker added that Yarbrough "Inspired many and faithfully served all."

As her colleagues cope with the loss, they told ABC7 it is no surprise that she continued to serve until she passed away.

"It was her vision. It was her dream. It was what she always wanted to do. They say, 'You die at work.' She died at work. She died doing what she wanted to do," Pappas said.

Yarbrough leaves behind her husband and six children. The functions of the clerk's office are continuing, according to spokesperson Sally Daly, who said last week that Chief Deputy Clerk Cedric Giles is in charge of operations.

"We have lost one of the brightest lights in the public service arena in Cook County and the State of Illinois and we will never be quite the same," Giles said in a statement on Sunday. "Clerk Yarbrough brought a unique spirit, energy, and compassion to her role in public service, and she used those gifts to bring out the best in all of us. She will be missed beyond measure."

Full statement from Yarbrough's family:

"Karen Yarbrough was a wife, mother, sister, aunt and mentor to everyone who met her. So many of us stand on her shoulders and are actively walking pathways that she forged. As a public servant, she had the courage to stand in support of issues that were not always popular, but she knew them to be right.
She was a champion of women's rights and a defender of the underprivileged and she touched so many people's lives for the better. Proud is too small a word for what it means to have someone like her as part of our family."

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson's statement:

On behalf of the City of Chicago, I am sending my heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones of Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough. As the first African-American and the first woman to hold the position of County Clerk, she was both a pioneer and a tireless legislator, committed to social and economic justice throughout decades of public service. Her passion for ensuring that communities experience the full support of their governing bodies and benefit from the fruits of our democracy will truly be missed, as will her radiant smile.

Karen Yarbrough forged a path for officials like myself and many others, and my administration is keeping her memory and her family in our hearts during this difficult time.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker's statement:

Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton's statement:

Congresswoman Robin Kelly's statement:

"I am saddened to learn of the passing of my longtime friend and colleague, Karen Yarbrough. I will never forget the times we had on the best State Rep row in Springfield. Most recently, we were colleagues on the Illinois Democratic State Central Committee. She was a force and a fierce fighter. I will miss her. My condolences to her family and staff. Rest in peace and power, dear Karen."

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch's statement:

"I'm heartbroken to hear about the passing of Clerk Karen Yarbrough and I want to extend my deepest condolences to her family and all who loved her. The state of Illinois got to know Karen as a trailblazer and a tenacious advocate with a remarkable legacy. Serving our west suburban community together for more than two decades, I was lucky enough to see her generosity, kindness, and the way she fiercely loved her family and friends, too. Our entire community mourns this loss and Karen will be deeply missed, but I know her spirit will always remain a guiding force."

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon's statement:

"My heart goes out to the people of Maywood and the family of my dear friend, Karen Yarbrough. For decades, Proviso Township could always count on the fact they had a champion fighting on their behalf in state and local government. I first met Karen nearly three decades ago and have admired her ever since. She had an infectious enthusiasm for people and her mere presence brought ease, comfort, stability, and warmth to every room and any situation.

Her long tenure in public life and multiple leadership positions in the Democratic Party were no accident. They were the product of hard work, dedication, and a deep affinity for the wellbeing of others. My thoughts and prayers are with Henderson, her family, and all of us reeling tonight from losing one of our dear friends and most steadfast partners in the pursuit of a better community."