I was born on May 9, 1954, in Hinsdale, IL, and at the time of the OLA fire I was just over 4 1/2 years old. I'm sure that most "adults" living at that time would have poo-pooed the fact that a "little kid" like me could absorb and remember so much at that age - - but I do, indeed, clearly remember the entire event.
When the fire happened, my family was living in Elmhurst, IL and it was the "golden age" of television and family life. Dad worked, Mom stayed home, and the wonderful invention of "television" was used to keep the young ones entertained. I watched shows such as "Romper Room", "The Howdy Doody Show", and "Kukla, Fran and Ollie", and they stay with me today.
I'm not sure what "childrens' show" was playing on television that afternoon, but I definitely was watching WGN-TV that day. I clearly remember that I was not happy that "my show" was suddenly interrupted by "big people" who came onto the screen and said that there was a fire in a school and children and nuns and teachers had been injured. Then, more “big people” adults came on the TV and said to us little people that this was really a bad thing, and that children might be dead.
I remember first being sad that I couldn't watch my show anymore. Then, the cameras and the new thing, "news helicopters", were showing scenes that my young and tiny brain had trouble processing. I wasn't even old enough to be in SCHOOL (still an alien concept to me yet), and suddenly these children were DEAD (a big question mark, which I was trying to process in my head) and the adults were showing this on "television", which up until that time was merely fantasy in my life.
It suddenly became very real; what was on the television was real, and it was not a "story" anymore. I remember asking my Mom (and my Dad, when he came home from work):
"Why did those children died in a fire?"
“They are really little like me. This is sad, why did those children die?”
"Will *I* die in a fire, too?"
"If there's a fire, will you save me, Mommy and Daddy?"
"What if no one could save me, or my friends?"
“I don’t want to go to kindergarten school, I might die in a fire and no one could save me.”
"Do you really want me to go to school, what if I die in a fire at school?"
With complete confidence, my parents reassured me that what had happened would never happen to me, or my little sister, or my friends. I trusted them then, and realized in later life that they were right ... it was something that would never likely touch me directly. However, they understood that compassion for the children and their families (as well as compassion for all people and beings on earth) was something that I should carry with me throughout my life.
Soooooo ... here I am, 53 years later, as I prepare to turn 58 on my next birthday. Mom is dead and cremated and buried off the shore of Lake Michigan ... and Dad is still with me. The pictures from that day in December, 1958, have haunted me for all of my life. That day in December, 1958, was the day that I realized I was not the sole person in the universe, but a small part of something larger. It was a new day, a new chapter, a new beginning of my existence. I realized, from that tiny time, that I was not invincible, that I was vulnerable, that I had no control over what happened to me, that day, or on any other day.
To this day, I sob every time I see the photo of John Jajkowski, Jr., being carried, lifeless, from OLA. I grieve for all that the parents and families lost, and what the survivors lost. I grieve for what may have been, that never was.
I grieve for those who could never share their loss with others, as I grieve in the fact that certain OLA families have chosen to not show/share the photos of their living and breathing children (especially Christina Vitacco ... for some reason, her story touches me on a personal level … I will never understand why the family would not want a photo tribute to their beautiful daughter to be displayed on the OLA site - and, as complete disclosure, I have no first-hand knowledge of the family, and no knowledge as to why they have chosen to disallow others from seeing their beautiful daughter's photo to be displayed, nor why the family has decided to prevent we, who are among the living, to share in the pain of letting them know that others here would love their daughter who perished, as much as the family members loved Ms. Vitacco in life, and also in death).
However, on an upbeat note: every time I read or see or hear about an update on the OLA school and parish, I am given new hope that really, in the long run, everything is right with the world, and that there is a positive ending to this tragedy and other tragedies as well.
Thank you for listening to me, and thanks to all the OLA survivors and their families for sharing this part of your life with all of us. Thank you, each and every one of you. You are inspirational as you live your lives, overcome the obstacles, and show us how each of us can draw on your strength and knowledge and the guts to keep on keeping on!
Currently living in
Buffalo Grove, IL