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