Can one person embody the character and values that have made Forest Park such a vibrant community? Mildred Lightell, who passed away on June 28 at the age of 92, was the quintessential Forest Parker. She not only spent her whole life here, her final resting place is in Woodlawn Cemetery. Longevity and loyalty to her hometown, though, do not begin to explain how Lightell’s spirit reflected Forest Park.
Over the years, she was known as the “dime store lady” for her long stint at the cash register of the Ben Franklin store on Madison Street. She was also described as Forest Park’s “ambassador” in a Chicago Tribune article. Lightell would shrink from such praise but the fact is she was the mainstay of her family and a town treasure.
Mildred Miller was born in Forest Park in 1913 and baptized at St. John’s. Her parents were German-speaking butchers from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A photograph shows them proudly wearing butcher garb in their native Austria. The only difference between these meat-mongers was that the grandfather butchered beef, while his wife cut up pork.
Shortly after their daughter was born in a building on Madison Street, Lightell’s parents purchased the two-flat at 419 Elgin for $6,000. They lived in the first floor apartment and rented out the top floor. In her childhood, Lightell experienced the wonders of the Forest Park Amusement Park and visited the nearby Checkerboard Airfield, where Charles Lindbergh flew the mail.
She started her education at Garfield School and went on to Proviso High School, where she was a member of the synchronized swim team. Lightell was also an avid tennis player but there were few athletic outlets for girls in those days.
She graduated high school in the depths of the Depression and went to work at a little hamburger stand her parents had constructed in Thatcher Woods. Her brother Joe slept there at night to safeguard the money and merchandise.
Lightell had an outgoing personality and liked waiting on customers like Al Capone. She was also an avid bowler. So it’s no wonder she met her husband at Circle Lanes. Ray Lightell had only an 8th Grade education but somehow secured a bookkeeping position in the Loop. He worked there from the late 1920’s until his death from a heart attack in 1972. Meanwhile, Lightell enjoyed bowling so much she joined two leagues.
The young couple was married at St. Peter’s and moved to a basement apartment at 622 Elgin, where they slept in a Murphy bed. Her son Robert remembered her bailing out the apartment after heavy rains. “She was so strong,” Robert recalled, “She could have ploughed the south 40.”
When Robert reached Middle School age, the family moved all the way to 901 Elgin. In those days, Forest Park was divided into two parts, separated by train tracks where the expressway is now located. The north half was mostly German-American, while the south half was predominately Italian-American. So, Robert and his brother Kenneth found themselves in unfamiliar territory, playing with Italian kids.
In 1957, though, when Robert was a freshman at Proviso, the family moved back north to 419 Elgin, to care for Lightell’s elderly parents. By this time, Lightell was working for Mr. Campbell at his Ben Franklin Store, across the street from Trage’s and next door to Peaslee Hardware.
Besides working outside the home, which was unusual for mothers of that era, Lightell was very involved in the sporting lives of her sons. She didn’t just teach them baseball, she took them to watch the Bloomer Girls play at Parichy Stadium. She also taught them to swim, allowing the boys to spend the summer at the spacious Forest Park Pool. Kenneth later earned a diving scholarship to college.
Lightell didn’t just expose her children to fun and games; she took them on excursions. Each Thursday during the summer was devoted to a trek downtown to a museum, or a trip to the Indiana Dunes, via the South Shore Line. It seems remarkable today but Mildred and Ray Lightell never owned a car.
Ray was not closely involved in his children’s activities but Lightell picked up the slack. She was a den mother for the Cub Scouts, because she felt it was her civic responsibility. She was also very active at St. Peter’s church and made sure the boys went every Sunday. For adventure, she took them on the Chicago Northwestern to the wilds of Lake Tomahawk, Wisconsin.
After Lightelll’s mother passed away, the family continued to occupy 419 Elgin. In fact, Lightell never wanted to leave that modest home. She also didn’t want her sons to work in factories. “To this day,” Robert said in awe, “I do not know where my family got the money to send me to college.” He attended Carthage College, before the campus moved from Carthage, IL to Kenosha, WI. Kenneth attended North Central, in Naperville, on his scholarship.
Meanwhile, Lightell was very happy working at Ben Franklin. She was sharp at the cash register and received many greeters during the day. She loved Madison Street but didn’t care for the saloons, which she dismissed as “shot and a beer joints.” Lightell rarely drank but, ironically enough, when she did she knocked back a shot. She had been taught in her youth that it was safer to drink shots because nothing could be added to them.
Lightell wasn’t a typical stay-at-home housewife but she could bake. Family and friends couldn’t wait for her holiday creations, which she sent as gifts. “Nobody likes fruitcake,” Kenneth said, “But everyone loved hers.”
Lightell was a liberated woman, before the term was invented. She was also progressive in her racial attitudes. Robert attributes this to her Lutheran-Christian ethics. She believed, “There’s no difference in people. They’re all good and deserve our respect, regardless of color.” If a racist remark were made in her presence, she would admonish the speaker. “That’s not the way we are and we don’t talk like that.”
In her late 70’s, Lightell was still working at Ben Franklin. She would be delighted when the government raised the minimum wage, because it meant a boost in her pay. When the Campbells sold the business, she retired. This didn’t keep her from strolling up and down Madison Street to greet her friends. At the age of 91, the woman was still walking two miles a day.
During her seventh decade, Lightell maintained a 160 average at Circle Lanes. She still hefted a 16-pound ball, which she called a “man’s ball.” By the time she was in her 80’s, though, she could only roll a 15-pound ball and her average dipped to 145. “She made friends easily at the bowling alley,” Robert recalled, “She was very warm and her team mates thought she was a hoot.”
Lightell was very independent and flew around the country visiting family and friends. She used to say, “If I want to get somewhere, I’ll get there.” She would think nothing of taking a bus to Florida. She also made a trip to Germany and Austria when she was in her mid-80’s.
At 90, she was finally slowed by heart surgery. Lightell was still living at 419 Elgin, on the 2nd Floor and her sons didn’t think she should be climbing stairs anymore. Robert tried to persuade her to move to a retirement home in the south suburbs.
“She put up a stink,” Robert recalled, “Then she said, ‘What about Altenheim?'” The two-flat was sold for considerable profit and Lightell moved to Altenheim for a few months. She was frustrated that she couldn’t take her daily stroll down Madison from Altenheim’s relatively distant location. Finally, she agreed to move to Holland Home, with the proceeds from the sale of 419 Elgin paying for her care.
Throughout her life, Lightell talked up Forest Park. She loved to reminisce about the people and places that had disappeared during her long life. In so many ways, she personified her beloved town. She lived modestly; was a loyal wife and involved parent; active in her church and community; an expert at traveling by public transportation; an avid bowler and a person who was tolerant of other races and cultures. The “dime store lady” truly was Forest Park’s ambassador.