Gerod, the longtime co-owner of Swim Cafe, died in her West Town home Monday night after battling colon cancer. She was 56.
After a nearly nine-year run in the area, Swim Cafe, owned by Gerod and her sister Debra Gerod, was sold to new owners, who reopened it as Awake Cafe in June.
In a written message, Debra Gerod said her sister "was always seeking [and finding] the joy and humor in life. She loved bringing the community together through the cafe and it was her vision of what type of place it should be that made it the place people loved to be at. Owning Swim with my sister is the thing in my life I am most proud of."
Originally from Deerfield, Karen and Debra grew up together but went their separate ways in college, with Karen Gerod studying theater in Pennsylvania and latter going to New York City to pursue the arts.
When Karen Gerod returned to the Chicago area in the mid 1980s, she first worked as a photo stylist and had several other passions, including cooking and feeding people at dinner parties attended by "friends and friends people she didn't even know."
Karen Gerod also enjoyed making wedding cakes, and it was while the sisters were looking for a kitchen for her to cater out of that they came across the storefront that would become Swim, which opened in 2005 at 1357 W. Chicago Ave.
Martha Bayne, a writer and founder of The Hideout's Soup & Bread fundraiser, used to live around the corner from Swim and met Karen Gerod when she first opened the cafe.
"She was above all else a wonderfully generous woman, both as a friend and as a businesswoman. She was one of the earliest and most stalwart supporters of Soup & Bread, pitching in more times than I can even remember with a last-minute pot of soup or a plate of cookies. She truly believed in the restorative power of food and community, and helped shore up my own belief in that power many times over," Bayne wrote.
Annie Tarwater, a former Swim barista and floor manager who now works at Ugly Mug Cafe, said, "She was so caring and went so far beyond being a typical boss. She was loving and cared about you as a person and wanted to make sure you got what you needed."
Tarwater kept in touch with Karen Gerod after the cafe closed and saw her a few times, as Karen Gerod lived a three-block walk from the cafe that had served as a neighborhood hub.
"A couple came over and said they met at the cafe and are having a baby," said Debra Gerod, who was a partner in the cafe, but did not operate it daily.
"Quite frankly [Karen] did everything. She was the inspiration, the creative juices, the elbow grease," said Debra Gerod.
Though Debra Gerod, 52, lives in California, she went traveled back and forth to be with her older sister after she was diagnosed with colon cancer last December.
"She came to see me in April and I thought she was doing so well. It was an awful disease, very painful to her, she suffered a lot," she said, though added her sister was "never one to mope."
Debra said one of Karen's goals when she sold her business was to make her home "be like a place she would want to hang out in."
Debra said her sister had just finished renovating her house, the fruits of which she was able to enjoy when she returned to her home from a hospice on Thursday. Karen Gerod died in her home Monday night.
"Every time she woke up she had a smile, a giant smile on her face and that's who she was and who she wanted to be and she just saw the good in life," her sister said.
A celebration of Karen Gerod's life is planned for 4-7 p.m. July 19 at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave.
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