Column: South Loop neighbors stand outside dying man’s condo to pay tribute in his final days
By Heidi Stevenschicagotribune.com
At noon on Saturday, under gray skies threatening rain and the pall of a global pandemic upending life in a million ways, Bill Hession’s friends and neighbors stood outside his South Loop condo and sent up their love.
Hession, 83, was inside his sixth-floor unit, where he lay dying. His daughter, Katie, and his wife, Joan, stood on the balcony, waving at the 60 or so people standing below on Calumet Avenue, just north of 21st Street.
A woman with three kids — two in a double jogging stroller — waved a giant Irish flag. A couple held up a sign written on the back of a roll of gift wrap: “BILL, FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS. LOVE, TORRES FAMILY.” Another man held a sign reading, “We love U Bill Hession.” Another sign: “Thank you for your friendship.”
Most people brought their dogs. A few exchanged elbow bumps. Bill Hession’s son, Daniel, walked around offering thank-yous and hellos from a safe distance.
At 12:08, a woman led the group in “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” A few minutes later, another woman walked down Calumet with a portable speaker playing Bing Crosby’s rendition.
“It was amazing,” Katie Hession told me afterward. “I knew my dad touched people. I had no idea how much.”
Bill Hession was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in October. He was receiving treatment at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, but he moved home March 20 (the one-year anniversary of his only brother’s death) to live out his last days surrounded by his wife, his four children and his beloved dog, Veronica.
Katie Hession knows her dad doesn’t have many days left. He hasn’t eaten since Tuesday. He floats in and out of consciousness, mostly out.
She knows when he passes, she and her mom and her siblings won’t be able to hold a proper wake and funeral for him, given coronavirus-mandated restrictions on crowds.
So she typed up a flyer. She added a photo of her dad walking Veronica. She explained the situation.
“This adds to my family’s heartbreak,” she wrote, “he is Irish after all and is so deserving of a fine send-off for a life well lived.”
She invited anyone who might recognize the duo to stand outside his condo Saturday “with more than six feet of social distance” and pay him a small tribute. She would hang a dog leash from the balcony so they knew which one was his.
“I hope you’ll just look up and send up a special thought or prayer to Bill,” she wrote. “He may not see you or hear you, but I hope to capture the procession from above in a photograph and show him how much the neighborhood cares for him, a friend, a fellow dog walker.”
She had six copies of the flyer made at a UPS store and hung them around the neighborhood.
And people showed up.
“We came inside, and I just said, ‘Dad. You had so many dog walkers and friends standing out in front of the building, and they brought their dogs and they sang, ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,’” she told me afterward. “And he opened his eyes a little bit, and he whispered, ‘Oh my God.’”
Bill Hession grew up in Chicago. He graduated in 1954 from Leo Catholic High School, where he was a standout football player. He earned a scholarship to Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and married his longtime girlfriend, Joan, his senior year.
After college, he returned to Leo Catholic to coach football and teach Spanish and English. (He was inducted into Leo’s hall of fame in 2011.) As the family and expenses started to grow, he got a job at Reavis High School in Burbank, where he taught and coached for more than 30 years.
At one point on Saturday, a gentleman in a Reavis jacket yelled up to Katie Hession on the balcony, “Your father coached me in football!”
“I told my dad,” Katie Hession said. “You had a Reavis Ram downstairs, and he wanted to thank you for being a great coach.”
Friends and neighbors dropped off cards as well. One was addressed to “The mayor of 2001 S. Calumet and his first lady Veronica.”
Katie Hession, who lives four blocks north of her parents, said she’ll soon be the one walking Veronica, a little bichon found on a Chicago street and saved by an organization called Small Paws Rescue.
“It was a match made in heaven,” Katie Hession said.
Before Bill Hession got sick, the family — Bill, Joan, four kids, nine grandkids — gathered every July in Lake Geneva for a weeklong “Papa-palooza.” (His grandkids call him “Papa,” and his birthday is July 5.) Katie Hession figures they’ll turn that tradition into his memorial this year, “if the world is right by then.”
“He’s a great man and a great person and a great father,” Katie Hession said. “He really deserved this.”
And his people delivered.
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