After her daughter Jeanine was murdered in 1983, Patricia Nicarico channeled her grief into a determination to see the killer brought to justice and work to support childhood literacy in her daughter’s name.
Despite the tragedy that befell her, friends said Nicarico was able to live a life of hospitality and warmth.
“I just remember when I came to their house that Pat was an amazing host and she instantly made me feel right at home and part of the family, and I think that’s one of the unique characteristics,” said Laura Heywood of Naperville, a longtime friend. “She was always so welcoming and warm and just one of those people that you would gravitate to.”
Nicarico, 80, died of complications from ovarian cancer on Sept. 23 at her home in Bluffton, South Carolina, said her husband of 58 years, Tom. She and her husband had moved from Naperville to South Carolina in 2006.
Born Patricia Panchak in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Nicarico attended secretarial school in New York and then worked as an executive secretary for Turner Construction Co. in Manhattan.
After her marriage to Tom Nicarico, a recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she and her husband lived in various locations before settling in Naperville in 1977. She worked as a secretary at Ellsworth Elementary School in Naperville for close to two decades.
On Feb. 25, 1983, Nicarico’s 10-year-old daughter Jeanine was home sick with the flu when she was abducted and killed. DuPage County State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett in 2005 called the murder “one of the worst in the history of this county.”
The case extended across a quarter-century. Three men initially were indicted, two of whom were found guilty of the slaying and sentenced to death before the state Supreme Court struck down those convictions.
After subsequent retrials and convictions, along with the introduction of new evidence and appeals, one of the men was acquitted of the crimes in 1995, while the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office dismissed all charges against the other man later that year. In 2005, Brian Dugan, a serial killer who previously had confessed to the crime, was indicted, found guilty and sentenced to death.
“We realize that this will never give any of us closure,” Nicarico told the Tribune in 2009 after the death sentence was imposed. “But it does give us some sort of relief and some small closure.”
Two years later, Dugan’s sentence was commuted to life in prison after Illinois abolished the death penalty.
Nicarico and her husband endured six trials across 25 years, along with numerous appeals and sentencing hearings.
“In spite of this terrible emptiness, we have tried to move on with our lives and not to let these feelings consume us,” she testified during the final trial, according to a 2009 Tribune article. “Jeanine would want us to be the family we were before.”
The Nicarico family and a small group of teachers co-founded the Jeanine Nicarico Memorial Literacy Fund in January 1996. The organization, which raised money through penny collection days, cookbook and bread sales and a 5K run, helped fund programs to educate children at Naperville schools.
The grants extended beyond literacy programs in schools to include efforts to read to newborns and fostering reading among senior citizens.
“Jeanine’s name has been surrounded by so much misery and so much horror,” Nicarico told the Tribune in 1996. “Here, we were able to take her out of that context and remember her for who she was.
“We were surprised at the involvement and how the community has reached out and responded in such an overwhelming way. In our minds, it just seems like such an appropriate way to honor Jeanine. We’re just hoping she can touch a lot of other children.”
Since its founding, the fund has awarded close to $1 million to both private and public schools in Naperville. Nicarico was involved in reading grant applications for giving out annual grants each year, and she was an “integral part” of the grant-reading committee, said her daughter Christine Roy.
“The biggest thing is that it put a positive spin on all the ugliness that surrounded Jeanine, and it did good,” Nicarico’s husband said. “Jeanine had trouble with reading, and hopefully through the fund, that is less of a problem for others.”
Roy said her mother “felt every time we gave to the community, it was kind of a way of Jeanine living on in others.”
Tom Nicarico noted his wife “bore the burden of what went on with courage and fortitude and grace and a positive outlook.”
“She just remained strong without flexing any muscles,” he said. “She stood up to it, and she let people console her and she let people help, and sometimes that’s not easy.”
Betsy Schaper called Nicarico “a friend to everybody who brightened up every room,” even as she was stricken with cancer.
“She was a loyal, fun-loving friend, and she was so brave,” said Schaper, who had known Nicarico for 16 years. “I followed and supported her through the whole medical journey, and she was just so brave. To every roadblock that was in her way, she said, ‘I’m going to beat this — don’t worry.’ She never had self-pity. She was so strong, and she and Tom were a wonderful couple.”
Nicarico greatly enjoyed entertaining and hosting people in her home.
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“She would always entertain family and friends, and she didn’t care how many people came over,” said Nicarico’s daughter Kathy Brown.
Nicarico enjoyed developing friendships with younger people, Heywood said.
“She didn’t only have friends in her own generation, but she was friends with her daughters’ friends as well, and even her grandchildren’s friends — she knew them all. And she was really one of the strongest women that I’ve known,” Heywood said. “She would just handle life’s challenges with such grace and she always had that ability to embrace what was good in life.”
In addition to her husband and two daughters, Nicarico is survived by four grandchildren; and two sisters, Nancy Aucone and Gwen Ellen Burdick.
A visitation will take place from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 3, at St. Raphael Catholic Church, 1215 Modaff Road, Naperville. A mass will follow at 11:30 a.m.
Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.
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