There is a curious plaque on the door to an otherwise nondescript first-floor classroom in St. Philip Lutheran School that says, only, “Shirley Ellen Lee Memorial: who was a student in this classroom.”
The simple brass plaque has remained on that door at 2500 West Bryn Mawr Avenue for over 50 years, but few in the school seem to know why it’s there. Not Michael Welton, the current principal at St. Philip who has taught in the classroom for four years. Nor Debbie Doyle, an administrative assistant who has been at the school for 30 years.
At the time it was placed, it was one of 10 such dedications to Shirley Ellen, a nine-year-old girl who died in a 1963 fire. Now it is the only one left.
In Chicago, countless memorials have been lost to development, destruction, or changing attitudes, from the more than 100 churches that have been closed and demolished within the last decade, to the current debate over taking down the Balbo Monument in Burnham Park. But the idea that putting up a memorial, in honor of someone or something, remains a common way to ensure it is remembered forever.
Shirley Ellen lost her mother when she was just two years old, leaving her father James Lee to raise her. By most accounts, they lived quietly: Shirley Ellen, described by her former teacher as a sweet girl, and James, a loving father who pulled in income from a two-flat he owned at 1223 West Gunnison Street and the 19-unit apartment building in which they lived in at 4400 North Racine Avenue. Their story would likely have been one of mundane anonymity if not for the chain of events that began March 3, 1963.
On that night, flames started in paint cans that James had stored near a gas stove in their third-floor apartment, trapping Shirley Ellen in a corner. According to a report in the Chicago Daily News the following day, James shouted to his daughter to stay where she was and ran next door to summon a neighbor, William Summers, for help. The men returned with a dishpan to throw water on the fire, but could not penetrate the wall of flames.
Fire Chief Thomas Kane of the 20th battalion was quoted in the newspaper, saying that Shirley Ellen was found with a pillow over her head, with which she was trying to extinguish her burning clothing. James, in shock at seeing his daughter’s body, reportedly cried, “My baby girl. She’s not dead. She’s not dead.”
James went through a period of deep depression, with his only wish being that all Chicago know what a special little girl his daughter was. He attempted to keep her memory alive by donating all his money and possessions to charity. He gave his two apartment buildings to the Lutheran Church of St. Philip, where Shirley Ellen attended school. He also made donations to the Hadley School for the Blind, the Victor C. Neumann Center for Retarded Children, the Lions Club camp for visually handicapped children at Lake Villa; Ravenswood Hospital; Augustana Hospital; and the Uhlrich Children’s Home. A plaque in the memory of Shirley Ellen was placed at each institution.
Soon thereafter, just seven weeks after the fire, James Lee called Daily News reporter William F. Mooney from a phone booth. “If I don’t do this with dignity, I’ll have to bum dimes to buy drinks. That would not be fair to the memory of my little girl,” he said, according to news accounts. Then he shot himself. It was April 17.
Fifty-four years later, many institutions that held these plaques, what should have been enduring symbols of a father’s love and heartbreak, are gone. The Lions Club camp, Ravenswood and Augustana Hospitals, and the Uhlrich Children’s Home have closed. Lee’s two apartment buildings remain, but there’s no sign of the plaques; presumably, they were taken down by one of a chain of owners since the 1960s.
The St. Philip’s classroom plaque, the Daily News archives, and a small, granite gravestone in St. Lucas Cemetery are all that remain of the daughter and the father that loved her so much.
But people remember. Robert Rickman, 65, who is now the pastor at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Delavan, Wisconsin, was a student a year ahead of Shirley Ellen and the son of the pastor at St. Philip, Victor Rickman. Rickman recalled that James gave away so much of his money that there was no money to pay for his funeral.
“He was buried out of a funeral home on Lincoln Avenue. I remember being told by the funeral director [years later] that he was the undertaker for both Shirley Ellen and James, but he was kind of miffed about James. He joked that James had given his money away but that he didn’t get paid. He was trying to make light of it,” Rickman said.
The gravestone, which has both of their names and the words, “Together in life and death,” does not have the year of James’s death engraved, perhaps supporting Rickman’s claim that there was no money left.
Lee Steffen, Shirley Ellen’s third grade teacher, now 78 and retired in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, said that in those last weeks, James offered him a Ford Thunderbird.
“He wanted to give it to me but I declined. I thought with the salary I was making that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the payments and afford gas. He ended up giving it to the congregation, and they soon found out that it he had only made one payment on it,” Steffen says.
Also, the two apartment buildings that James gave to the parish of St. Philip were behind on payments, according to former principal Richard Blatt, now 79 and retired and living in the western suburbs.
“He had no money. He left us an apartment building that was so deeply in hock, it cost us money,” Blatt says.
What James lacked in financial means he made up for with a singular focus on keeping his daughter’s memory alive. His final weeks on this earth were spent spreading her memorials far and wide—perhaps he knew that they could be just as fleeting as a human life. And his actions led to her being memorialized in newsprint, which means anyone seeing that last plaque in St. Philip’s might pull up the Daily News story that lauded his efforts to remember his little girl. The caption reads, “Shirley Ellen Lee: Someone loved her very much.”