We were very saddened by the passing of our friend and dedicated worker for social justice, Claire Szoke. Claire grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a major in Spanish and journalism. In 1959, she came to Champaign-Urbana to do graduate work. She received her Ph.D in 1969 in Spanish Language and Literature.
Claire first taught Spanish and English in several area schools. In the mid-seventies she was a consultant for the Technical Education Research Centers (now TERC), devoted to inclusion and career development for special needs students. From 1983 to 1989, Claire was the religious education director of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign. From 1985 to 2018 she was a technical editor in the U of I’s Chemistry Department, which was very convenient because it was virtually across the street from the Unitarian-Universalist Channing-Murray Foundation, for which she served as the director from 1991 to 2019. During her tenure as director of Channing-Murray, Claire organized countless social justice programs, workshops and Sunday Services in the chapel, oversaw the longevity of the Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant, and made sure all programs were welcoming to and inclusive of a diversity of students and community members alike. She was, in many ways, the heart and soul of this vibrant Unitarian-Universalist campus/community center during her tenure.
Aside from being a dedicated Unitarian-Universalist and a rock of the Channing-Murray Foundation, Claire was involved in a vast array of social justice causes and movements.
While still a graduate student at the U of I she attended civil rights marches, including in Selma, Alabama. She was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and was active in the campus anti-Vietnam war movement. She was also active in the University YMCA, including serving on the Friday Forum Committee; and in the Interfaith Alliance, the nuclear freeze movement and the CU Ecumenical Committee on Sanctuary (helping undocumented Central American refugees fleeing death and torture); as well as in other refugee assistance organizations, including El Centro de los Trabajadores and Immigration Forum. She was a major figure in the Central Illinois Jobs with Justice, the meetings of which she hosted in the Channing-Murray Foundation.
It would be difficult to find anyone as kind and as welcoming, whether to refugees or citizens in our own community, as Claire. She was a mentor and a dear friend to many. To say that she will be missed is an understatement. She was an icon, emblematic of all that is good and caring in our community. She was a heavy lifter in making it so.