Dr. Douglas James Passaro, 43

Tried to solve mysteries of infectious diseases

April 21, 2005 By Tracy Dell'Angela
Chicago Tribune staff reporter

Douglas James Passaro found joy in simple pleasures and profound mysteries.

Dr. Passaro was an epidemiologist who wanted to unlock the secrets of a spiral-shaped bacteria that causes stomach disease. He was a professor who challenged his students with real-life exercises in bioterrorism. He was the daddy who donned Hawaiian shirts and made his little girls giggle. He was the middle-aged musician who took on the alter-ego "Icon" as he whomped on a bass guitar.

Dr. Passaro, 43, died Monday, April 18, in his Oak Park home. The cause of death awaits further study by the Cook County medical examiner's office.

Dr. Passaro wowed students and colleagues alike as an epidemiology professor for the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health and as an infectious disease physician in the school's medical center, where he worked since 2001.

"He genuinely loved his students. His enthusiasm was infectious, and he was always provoking students to reach a little further," friend and UIC colleague Ronald Hershow said.

Dr. Passaro made friends easily and kept old ones forever.

Dr. Passaro courted his wife at Northwestern University's medical school and impressed her with his mastery of biochemistry. Dr. Sherry Nordstrom found herself drawn to his carefree charm and curious mind. He was the smartest scientist she had ever met, and they got married in 1991 after their graduation. They lived in California while he completed his residency and worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He was passionate about his work, but he carved out a career that allowed him the time he treasured with his daughters.

Dr. Passaro's desire to unlock the mysteries of disease was shaped by a stint with the Peace Corps, which he joined after graduating from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in psychology. For two years he taught science to high school students in Swaziland.

He chose his specialty because he wanted to make a big difference. He explained it this way: As a heart surgeon, he could save one life for $100,000. As an epidemiologist, he could save 100,000 lives in Africa for the same $100,000.

Lanny Passaro saw the seeds of that passion when his son was a preschooler--dubbed the "little professor" because he wore thick bifocals, devoured encyclopedias and wrote stories on a typewriter. He breezed through advanced courses at Highland Park High School, but worked so hard as a 112-pound wrestler that his teammates voted him most dedicated.

In the months before he died, he developed a course that would lift his students beyond the abstract view of illness they saw under a microscope.

"He was just starting to spread his wings," Hershow said. "Who knows what he could have accomplished with more years?"

Survivors also include two daughters, Natalie and Gina; his mother, Cindy Passaro; sisters Michele Singer and Leslie Lyon; his stepmother, Terry Passaro; and a stepsister, Tracey Miller.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Pilgrim Congregational Church, 460 Lake St., Oak Park.


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