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Katherine J. Firak: An Extraordinary Woman

We had the honor of connecting with Thomas Firak, who lost his beloved wife to cancer in April of 2016.  They were married for 46 years and their story is a shinning example of the power and beauty of love.  Below, you’ll find an essay that Thomas has written about his wife, Katherine J. Firak.

The most beautiful girl in the world came walking in to my life on Halloween 1968.  Love at first sight for me.  We saw each other soon after that.  I worked for the precinct captain and was working the voting place on the outside trying to persuade people reluctantly to vote for the local democrats. We were going to see each other on what happened to be voting day.  Little did I know that voting day goes on forever?  I thought I would be let go at 5 or 6 pm not so with the crooked politicians. They work you to death.   My friend Tom phoned in a bomb scare so I could get out of work at least for a couple hours.  It worked.  I did have to go back and stay till 11 pm.  But we had a good time together she was the love of my life. Kathy overcame a large disability.  She was blind in her right eye and had about 20 percent vision in her left eye.

Kathy was born on November 9th 1951 in the City of Chicago to the parents of Thomas and Mary Riley.  The Riley’s arrived in Chicago in 1919 from New Orleans, via Ireland during the Famine.  Kathy’s mother, Mary, immigrated to America in 1928 from Westport, County Mayo.  Kathy was a premature birth and was given too much oxygen. This caused blindness in the right eye and 20/80 vision in the left eye.   In 1951 doctors were not up to speed that too much oxygen can cause blindness in premature infants.  It was just something Kathy had to live with for the rest of her life and adjust to the limitations.  Kathy lived and grew up on the North Side of Chicago.  She was able to go thru grade school with great success.

Her friend in grade school Wendy McCumber remembered Kathy.

“Kathy and I made friends with each other very quickly. She was a great friend to me as I was the target of bully’s. She always had my back. I will never forget what a great friend she was. By the way, I never knew Kathy was blind in one eye until she was trying to make me feel better during a bullying situation. She was a sweet girl, a great kid and a very beautiful person”.

On July 19th 1963 Kathy faced another challenge and a great loss.  Her mother Mary Riley passed away from a spontaneous Cerebral Hemorrhage.  It was of course a great loss for the whole family.  They were extremely devastated.   Kathy was 11 years old soon to be 12. She had a brother and sister who were younger than her.  She would become the lady of the house and took over the household work. She was doing the laundry, ironing, cleaning, writing checks and paying the bills and still trying to be a kid.

She accepted the responsibility and did a wonderful job. She graduated from Burley Chicago Elementary School in June 1965.   She went on to Madonna High School for four years and graduated in June 1969.  After high school Kathy started working as a secretary at Underwriter Laborites on 207 E. Ohio St.  She had no problems handling the job with her limited vision.  As I said we met on Halloween 1968 and dated for about 2 and half years.  We were married on March 13th 1971. It was a great day for us.  She truly was the girl of my dreams.  I worked at Kraft Foods at that time so we could drive to work together.  Kraft was only three blocks from Underwriters Laboratories.   She worked there for two plus years till our first child Tommy was born on July 16th 1971.  We had a baby girl Jennifer on January 2nd 1974.  Kathy was a stay at home mom for the next four years but she worked part time in the evenings at a local portrait and wedding photographer’s studio at night. There she scheduled photography sessions and also took passport pictures.  She also took accounting classes at Wright Community College in the evening.  In July of 1978 we opened our photography studio at 469 E, Ohio St. in Chicago.  She organized the start-up of the business including financing, negotiating lease, setting up and maintaining bookkeeping system using Lotus 123.   She also did the Preparation of estimates and proposals, hiring freelance assistants, Food Stylist and coordinating shooting schedules and final billing.  Along with generating leads, presenting portfolio, prepare promotional material and mailings, prepare bids and deliver completed projects.


In the middle 1980s Kathy took more courses at Wright Community College in Chicago and achieved an Associate of Arts degree, with honors.  Major:  Computer Science and Accounting. GPA:  3.72/4.00 in July 1988.

In 1989 Kathy took courses in C programming, Systems Analysis and Technical Writing at DePaul University, Chicago, IL

When personal computers came on the market she was one of the first ones to recognize the value of this new technology and one of the first to own one.  She started in computers when they were still in the MS DOS mode.

When business was in distress Kathy found a way to bail us out with accounting methods and refinancing that I had no knowledge of and we survived because of that.

From 1992 to 1994 Kathy worked for various temporary employment agencies in Chicago, IL she was the Accounting Clerk and General Office Manager.  She handled assignments in Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, Customer Service and General Office.  She also handled sales of temporary and permanent placement services to Chicago and the suburban area and was working with existing clients and also generating new leads.  Assignments ranged from two to 16 weeks in length.

In 1994 to 1996 she worked at SKYLINE PERSONNEL INC in Chicago. She was the Office Manager and accountant. She conducted interviews and testing.  She would fill and follow up on placement orders, both permanent and temporary.  Design promotional materials and place classified advertising.  Maintained accounts payables and receivables.

In 1996 Kathy started work at The Guild for the Blind now called Second Sense She took over the accounting responsibilities which were in a big mess at the time and straightened out that department.

The director was fired and Kathy and Cheryl took over as temporary directors till someone could be hired. And soon after became the Director of Operations.  Her responsibilities included Accounting (Monthly reports to board, oversee audit, and budgets), Human Resource (payroll, benefits, and employee records), and Information Technology (Install, maintain, and upgrade network and workstations, database, and website).

Here is a quote from Lauri Dishman Gordon “Kathy was so invaluable at the Guild! She was tenacious in solving any problem that were put in front of her. I respected that so much”.

In 2005 she earned a Bachelor’s degree, with honors, in General Education from Roosevelt University.

She left The Guild for The Blind in 2010 because of the extreme work load and to pursue her desire to create websites.  For 6 years she built and designed several successful websites including our photography website  She was constantly educating herself by listing to webinars on website design and coding.

This is a quote from Bernie Sawford from England “Kathy became my friend when I was trying to build a web business. This friendship built up over a year, Kathy was in the US and I am in the UK sometimes we both had to wait up to 12 hours for a simple reply but the answer always came through without fail. Her help and understanding guided me towards my goal. We talked over the web nearly every day and bounced ideas backwards and forewords, through this both of us grew in our abilities, she became my rock and I think I may have became hers on the website building front. Still can’t believe she is not with us, miss this lovely lady, she was so supportive to me.”

From artist designer Jody Peterson Siegel “I had no idea her sight was so compromised. You’d never know it by her attitude, spirit or accomplishments. She was an extraordinary person. I went thru your whole photo gallery and I saw Kathy as the stand in for SC Johnson Candle photo shoot. We should have used her as the model!  I had no idea she was so photogenic. ”

In September of 2013 we had an assignment to photograph various Chicago Iconic locations. There were ten in all.  It was a four months after my open heart surgery and still not at full strength. She was my strength. She was there to help me when I ran out of energy. I could not have finished the project without her.

Here are some of Kathy’s favorite quotes…life is too short to worry about little things!  So enjoy your life, laugh every chance you get, cry only if you must & never let other people get you down!!

When life veers from the course you had planned out, re-evaluate your priorities and maybe you’ll find that what you have is better than what you had planned.

Life like a dance you learn as you go, sometimes you lead sometimes you follow, don’t worry about what you don’t know, and life’s a dance you learn as you go.

Nobody cares if you can’t dance. Just dance.

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize
how close they were to success when they gave up”
-Thomas Edison

A poem Kathy found that made her think about her Mom.” Thought of you with love today, but that is nothing new. I thought about you yesterday and days before that too. I think of you in silence, I often speak your name. All I have are memories and a picture in a frame. Your memory is a keepsake, with which I’ll never part. God has you in his keeping; I have you in my heart. “

When her twin grandchildren boys were born she took care of them during the day for the first year and a half so that her daughter in law and son would not incur the cost of daycare.

On April 2nd 2016 I lost my dear wife Kathy. She had lost her 8 month battle with cancer. She was the smartest, sweetest and kindest person I ever knew and I miss her very dearly. She was always ready to help anyone in need. I miss talking and being with her and exchanging thoughts and ideas and collaborating on decisions of importance.  We were married 46 years and together since Halloween 1968.  She was an extraordinary woman who overcame her disability of near blindness. She had about 20 percent vision in her left eye and none in her right.  She achieved a great deal in that time. She became an account, photographer, and Human Resources person and computer expert. She started in computers when they were still in the MS DOS mode. She overcame her vision problems to become the Director of Operations at Guild for the Blind now called Second Sense. That included head of human resources, the head of the accounting dept. and the computer tech person.  She also for the last 6 years of her life built and designed several websites.  I want people to know what a great lady she was and what she meant to me.

I miss her very dearly she truly defined my life.

– Thomas Firak


  1. candy piemonte

    April 25, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    Dear Tom,
    This was beautiful. You are very blessed to have shared a life with Kathy.
    much love,

    • Bernie Sawford

      May 19, 2019 at 9:26 am

      I know how much you miss this lovely lady Tom, I am sure I can speak for everyone who knew her, we were blessed to have had her in our lives. A truly wonderful person, God bless.

      Big love,
      Bernie Sawford

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