When she was still on the bench, Lisa Curcio Gaston would gaze out of her judicial chamber windows on the 28th floor of the Daley Center and consider the great pale turquoise expanse off in the distance.
“Was there ice? Was it breaking up? And how soon could we get on the lake?” she would wonder.
Not a speck of ice last week on Lake Michigan and only a few blurry contrails to spoil an otherwise unblemished blue sky.
“No matter how many times I’m out here, there is nothing that beats the view from the lake to the city — daytime or nighttime,” said Curcio Gaston, 68, heading south on the lake from Belmont Harbor earlier this month.
You can still call her Your Honor — even though she retired as a Cook County judge in 2018 — but she now has another title: commodore.
At the start of 2023, she took over the top job at the Chicago Yacht Club, becoming the first woman in the club’s 148-year history to hold the title. The job doesn’t come with a fancy hat or a double-breasted jacket with gold epaulets; it doesn’t come with an office or pay either.
But the significance of the moment isn’t lost on the 4-foot-11 woman. Back in the mid-1990s, when she first considered joining the club, a fellow boat owner urged her husband to join — but not her.
“He was an older fellow who didn’t think of women as belonging to yacht clubs,” she said.
Curcio Gaston joined anyway, working her way up from, among other roles, secretary to vice commodore to her current job. Her husband died of a heart attack in 2016.
Being commodore of a 1,250-member club isn’t like being a judge, she says. You can’t simply order people to do things.
“Sometimes, it’s very annoying,” she said.
Mostly, she said, she signs lots of things. She is also the chairwoman of the board of directors. She’s currently helping oversee the replacement of the 100-year-old clubhouse at Belmont Harbor — a project put on hold during the pandemic when the club was just focused on “surviving,” she said. The club has a second location at Monroe Harbor.
Nick Berberian, the most recent past commodore, said of his successor: “She’s got enormous presence. She’s got enormous talent. She has an enormous passion for the water. … She captains a 50-plus-foot boat on her own.”
Curcio Gaston’s boat isn’t in the water yet, but in the summer months, she leaves her home in Wicker Park and settles into the 52-foot “boxy” motorboat with her 16-year-old west highland white terrier, Bella.
She was on board in Belmont Harbor in August 2020 when a storm that spawned a tornado in Rogers Park swept across the city.
“It was like a wall of water. As it was coming through, I thought I better go below,” said Curcio Gaston, who survived unscathed, even though one of the docks at the harbor broke loose.
As for her priorities as commodore?
“Boating and the yacht club are open to anyone. It has nothing to do with gender or race. … Clearly, as the first female commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club in 148 years, women is the primary focus, but I really believe we need to make sure everybody understands the opportunities that are available,” she said.
Monthly membership dues vary according to age. For someone 21 to 24, it’s $89 a month with a one-time initiation fee of $950. The top of the range is for those 40 and older, paying $471 a month, with a $10,000 initiation fee. You don’t have to own a boat.