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La Leche League executive

November 04, 2008|CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Breast-feeding rates had fallen to nearly 20% in the United States in 1956 when Betty Wagner Spandikow and six other mothers in suburban Chicago gathered around a kitchen table to share breast-feeding tips and offer one another advice and support.

"They came together at a time when even doctors were proponents of baby formula and encouraging women to use bottles," her daughter Helen Huntley said.

It was a modest beginning for what would become the largest breast-feeding advocacy organization in the world, La Leche League International, with support groups in every state in the U.S. and in 68 countries. The league was named for the Spanish word for milk so meeting notices could be printed in newspapers without drawing undue attention.

And Spandikow -- the mother of seven -- was at the center of it all, co-writing "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding," a book that has sold more than 2 million copies and has been translated into eight languages and Braille, family members said.

"Her philosophy was that breast-feeding was nature as it was intended," her daughter said. "Why, she would ask, should we create chemicals to take the place of that?"

Spandikow, 85, a co-founder of La Leche League International in Schaumburg, Ill., and a former chief executive officer, died Oct. 26 at a nursing facility in Glen Ellyn, Ill., from complications related to a stroke she suffered two years ago.

Described as down-to-earth and approachable, Spandikow was a popular speaker who gave lectures on breast-feeding at conferences around the world and once addressed the United Nations.

"She never regarded what she did as anything spectacular," said Jane Crouse, the public relations associate for La Leche League International, which celebrated its 52nd anniversary in October. "You'd never have suspected that she headed a huge global organization."

Born in 1923 and raised in Chicago, Spandikow was one of four children whose family struggled during the Depression. "She told us stories of selling pencils on the street and how her family had to chop up their piano to sell as firewood," her daughter said.

In 1942, Spandikow married her first husband, Robert Wagner, with whom she had seven children. He died in 1975. In 1993, at the age of 70, she married her second husband, Paul Spandikow, who lives in Paris, Tenn.

Beginning in 1956, Spandikow served as the first treasurer and business manager of La Leche League International. She was chief executive officer of the league from 1972 until her retirement in 1991.

During her tenure as chief executive officer, Spandikow oversaw the work of more than 50 employees. She initiated flex hours and a family-friendly workplace with hours that allowed parents to be home with their children after school.

"She had rocking chairs in her office and toys everywhere for children who came to visit," Crouse said.

Spandikow remained a member of the La Leche League International Founders Advisory Council until her death, family members said.

In addition to her husband and her daughter Helen, she is survived by two other daughters, Peggy Dowd Henderson and Dorothy Rasmussen; a son, Robert; 26 grandchildren; and 22 great-grandchildren.

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