Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Elderly Network Loses its Angel

By Eric Zorn
April 13, 1993

(My friend Bob Carlton found this story and sent me the link. Eric Zorn writes so well about this Scottish lady named Jessie Conaughton. What I find interesting is that she and her husband worked for James E. McMillan, the Ovaltine man, and he left Jessie a small annuity from his estate. Here are the words of Eric Zorn.)

They are the people you don't often think about, and they live in apartments you almost never notice.

They are the elderly underground-a quiet, unofficial network of retired domestics, teachers, clerks and others who dwell in modest apartments above shops and businesses in downtown Winnetka.

Most of them are widows. They cook for each other, help each other with errands and housework as needed, fill out forms, keep tabs and provide much-needed company. The small group has never had a name-though every so often someone calls them "the bench ladies," after a bus stop where some of them gather in warmer weather-and now it is struggling on with a wounded heart.

On April 1, Jessie Conaughton, for decades the most visible and active member of the helping network, died at age 87 of complications following a stroke.

"I loved her dearly," said Margaret Vieth, 89, a retired nurse who lives alone above a flower shop. "She used to come by every morning to help me make my bed and wash the dishes and carry out the garbage. Then she would ask me what I needed at the store.

"She would never accept anything for it," Vieth said. "I'd thank her and she'd say, `Oh, that's nothing.' but I would say, `No it isn't. You don't know what it means to me to have someone come in with a smile and a friendly word and do these things I can no longer do.' "

"Helping others was Jessie's whole life," said Elise Gieser, 83, a former schoolteacher who drives for the other retirees when they need to go shopping or to the doctor. "I think she just didn't know anything else to do."

For nearly three decades, Conaughton was a pleasant if slightly eccentric figure around the village, a cheery, slight woman with a rich Scottish accent who walked everywhere in a determined stride and always wore tennis shoes.

But her sparkle disguised a bleak and difficult life, Gieser said. When she was a toddler, her mother died in childbirth and left her to be reared by a critical and unaffectionate father, Gieser said Conaughton told her.

She emigrated from Scotland to the United States in her teens and began her lifelong work as a domestic servant. She married Edward Conaughton, a chauffeur, who also was said to be undemonstrative, and the two ended up employed at the lakefront estate of James McMillan, president of the A. Wander Co.

Edward Conaughton died in 1963, and McMillan died two years later. Jessie Conaughton received a small annuity from McMillan's estate, and she and one of her two sons, Patrick, now 52, moved to an inexpensive, one-bedroom apartment above what is now a shoe store in downtown Winnetka.

Such apartments, like the people who live in them, are nearly invisible amid the activities and commerce of small business districts. And they are slowly vanishing in wealthy communities as building owners rehab them to attract upscale tenants or convert them into more lucrative office space, according to Jean Cleland, a program director and case manager at the North Shore Senior Center.

She took in dry cleaning for those who lived in the other apartments around town but couldn't manage it for themselves; returned library books; filled prescriptions; ran to the post office; took in newspapers; anything, everything, and never asked for or wanted payment.

"She finally let me give her an alarm clock because she didn't have one," said Katherine Hudson, 85. "We called her the angel of Elm Street."

In the last year, however, it became clear that the angel was losing her wings. Her trademark stride slowed down, she lost her hearing and she became increasingly forgetful, friends said. She died just two days after entering a Northbrook nursing home.

"No one planned any services, and I felt that wasn't right," Cleland said. "I felt we should not let such a life pass unremarked."

So Cleland organized a memorial gathering for Monday afternoon at the Winnetka community house, an event that Patrick Conaughton said would have embarrassed and surprised his mother.

Shopkeepers and store clerks who knew her from her frequent errand runs turned out, as did several members of the community who said that they had exchanged pleasantries with Jessie Conaughton on the street for years and only learned her name after her death. Speakers included several members of the informal elderly underground, of which fewer than 10 are still alive.

Retired architect Carl Sterner, 87, the only man in the seniors network, struggled to his feet near the close of the 40-minute memorial. "She was a grand lady and I miss her very much," he said. "But I'll struggle along somehow."

So will the rest of them. But it won't be as easy or as pleasant anymore.


You can find the latest news about Eric Zorn on the Internet. Thanks Eric.
Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Man from Ovaltine

James G. McMillan was born in Broughty Ferry, Scotland, on July 10, 1881 to a family of modest means. He attended Grove Academy and won many medals in sports, especially swimming. He was a member of an elite group called “Ye Amphibious Ancients” who always opened their swimming year with a dip in the Firth of Tay on New Year’s Day. He was apprenticed to chemists for a total of six years, becoming a pharmacist in 1905.

He moved to London and after a period of time became a detail man for A. Wander, Limited. During World War I, he served in the Home Guard as a second lieutenant. In the fall of 1919, he moved to the United States to manage the Wander Co. Their small factory built in 1917 was located in Villa Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. “He ably and constructively filled the position of President and General Manager until his retirement in 1951 at the age of 70.”

In 1935, a large addition was added to the Wander factory in Villa Park. Their business steadily gained in sales throughout the depression. In 1932 the company had expanded by building a one story building and now they added three more stories with a floor area of some 60,000 square feet. In 1935, the plant used 15 million pounds of grain, half a million pounds of milk per week and the eggs from 70,000 chickens. The new plant contained a bowling alley and was totally air conditioned. There was also a baseball field for the employees to use. During the Great Depression Mr. McMillan was paid $100,000 a year. I have been told it was a good place to work and that employees were well treated. Those of you who live in the area, as I do, know that the plant building has now been converted to apartments.

Not far from the plant was a modern “moving picture” theater of old English design, erected and owned by Mr. McMillan. It appears the building still exists and has recently been converted to three floors and three apartments. The Ovaltine club, carried on the social activities of the company’s employees; they also had an orchestra and three tennis courts. When the plant closed in 1985, it was a complex of 23 buildings on 15 acres with 237,000 square feet of work space. In the 1950s the factory ran at peak production and employed 300 to 400 people.

In March of 1923, James McMillan married Emily Virginia Brady. She was born in 1890 in Lucas, Ohio. Mrs. McMillan died in Passavant hospital (Chicago) on July 22, 1959. She was founder and first president of the Illinois Opera Guild and was president of the Great Lakes Hospital Music League for which she received a Navy citation. Mass was said in Holy Name Cathedral. As of this writing, I do not know her place of burial even though there has been a diligent search.

Mr. and Mrs. McMillan lived at 445 Sheridan Road in Winnetka, Illinois. It was the former home of Albert Pick and later was famous as the home of W. Clement Stone who entertained lavishly in this mansion along the lake shore. McMillan bought the house in 1931 and lived there until his death in 1965. At the time, the house contained 17 rooms and a 3-car garage. The sound of bagpipes could be heard often at 445 Sheridan Rd. Mr. & Mrs. McMillan regularly entertained their Scottish friends. You can see the house and read its history if you goggle: 445 Sheridan Rd., Winnetka, IL.

James McMillan was an active member of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society. He served on the Board of Governors and was made an Honorary Governor when he retired. Under the leadership of Hughston McBain in 1964, the Scottish Home added a 14-bed health care wing to its facility. Total cost, including furnishings was $200,000.  James McMillan was the major donor and so the wing was named for him. He died shortly before the dedication. We have made a diligent search of the burial place of Mr. and Mrs. McMillian without success. If anyone reads this who can help, we would like to pay our respects.

(The last reference in the Chicago Tribune was a wedding announcement, between Suzanne Snells and Franklin Martin deBeers III of Glenview, Illinois, February 15, 1965. “His great-uncle is James G. McMillan of Winnetka.”)

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

December 14, 2014 - The annual Christmas Party and a general meeting of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society membership will take place in Heritage Hall at the Scottish Home beginning at 3:00 p.m. RSVP 708-408-5591.

January 10, 2015 - History Club Meeting. Our speaker is Ana Koval, President/CEO of the Canal Corridor Association.