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Grace’s fall from the heights of her career to the depths of alcoholism in the last few years of her life has left her friends and family puzzled, bereft, and asking what could have been done to save her. “It was just so painful to see a person with so much charisma get lost like that,” says Steve Adams, a friend since high school.
Taylorville, where Julie Ruth Grace grew up, seems farther removed from Chicago than its distance, 200 miles south, would suggest. A small, rural town with a quaint, if slightly dilapidated, Main Street, Taylorville had its heyday in the 1960s when its coal-mining industry and a large local paper mill were thriving. The Graces moved there in 1968 when Julie and her older brother, Glenn, were in grade school after their father, a school psychologist, got a job testing children for placement into special education.
Cheerful and high-spirited, Grace found many outlets for her restless energy: She was an able student; she volunteered at the local hospital; she swam competitively; and, in her senior year of high school, she went out for the girls’ basketball team. Though tall and lanky, Grace was not an especially talented ballplayer, according to David Hixenbaugh, her coach and now the assistant superintendent of Taylorville’s public schools. But she practiced hard and “never, ever complained” about the hours of shooting and wind sprints or the fact that she didn’t get much court time during games.
Grace left for college in 1980. After completing three years at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, she moved to Washington, D.C., and finished up her credits in part by working on Capitol Hill, first as an intern for Senator Alan J. Dixon, and later as a paid administrative staffer for then Congressman Paul Simon. Though at first attracted more to liberal causes than to the political process, Grace was soon hooked. She put in a stint on Walter Mondale’s disastrous 1984 campaign for the presidency, then took an entry-level job at Jasculca/Terman and Associates, a Chicago-based political consulting firm. “I think she would have loved to have been press secretary for the White House,” says Mark Williams, an attorney who dated Grace briefly and then became a close friend. “That would have been her dream.”
Socializing and swapping war stories over drinks in the higher-end bars along Rush Street served a double purpose for Grace: It was fun, to be sure, but it was also work. Before long, Grace became a recognizable fixture in the city’s insular political scene. “Julie had a sixth sense about where the political action was,” says Thom Serafin, a political public relations consultant and her friend since 1986. “She went to all the fundraising events and so she met a lot of people that way. Those she didn’t meet she called up and made an appointment for lunch.”
But by the end of the 1980s, friends say, she was burned out and looking for an escape from what she increasingly considered a dead-end career in politics. According to Williams, she had poured her “heart and soul” into her work for local Democrats such as Neil Hartigan, Jim Burns, Ted Lechowicz, and Al Ronan, and slogged through two years cranking out press releases for the state of Illinois tourism office. “She felt people were not reciprocating her hard work and effort,” Williams says.
Hoping to get into journalism, Grace appealed in 1990 to Thomas Hardy, then a Chicago Tribune political columnist, for career advice. Hardy remembers telling her to get some real reporting and writing experience before applying to the city’s biggest newspaper for a job. “She knew reporters because she dealt with them in campaigns and in her [tourism] job,” Hardy says. But, he remembers thinking, “the first stop isn’t the Tribune.” The next year, by way of an introduction through Thom Serafin, Grace landed at Time, the nation’s oldest weekly newsmagazine, with a circulation of four million readers.