Life can be a funny exercise.
We worship athletes, and rock stars, and entertainers.
We go looking for heroes.
We have TV shows about idols.
Lost in all of it, of course, is that some of the best people are those right here — so close to us we rarely stop to think.
So it goes these days along a quiet stretch of Illinois 9.
There, between Gibson City and Paxton, is planted a simple cross.
Put there by the owner of the nearby Elliott Cafe, it remembers Jeanne DeWall, 55.
She died there.
A simple-minded soul by birth and, perhaps because of it, she was devoted in life to simply trying to make others happy — in this case, by promptly delivering their morning newspaper — which she opted to do by bicycle after her vehicle broke down on a recent morning.
“Rain, snow, ice, a broken vehicle,” says a friend, Elizabeth Stoner, “she would have walked those papers if she’d had to.”
According to police reports, it was then and there, on a long, lonely, five-mile bike ride at the edge of dawn along the two-lane highway between Gibson City and Elliott, that Jeanne was hit by a motorist who, confronted by another car coming the other way, didn’t see her until it was too late.
“Any of us would have gladly given her a ride,” says the Rev. Bob Koonce, a retired Pentecostal pastor in Gibson City known simply as Bishop Koonce. “But she had those papers to deliver and she was determined on getting it done. That was her biggest happiness, I think — to make people happy in ways like that. She lived to get those papers out.”
Jeanne DeWall was, to a large degree, one of those people who isn’t missed — until she is gone.
Mildly impaired, she needed help with matters like budgeting and life plans, but she lived alone with her two dogs and a cat.
No fashion-plate, she’d be seen on Ford County streets, wearing a skirt or dress over pants, with a pullover that didn’t match either.
Adopted as a baby by a farmer and his wife who have since passed, she was left much of their wealth in a trust, but had no family except a nearby cousin, who dutifully watched over her affairs.
Unfazed by money, she instead liked to give hers away — to charity, to church, to fellow animal lovers, to people she saw in need — to the point where she had to be restricted to a certain amount each week or, as one acquaintance puts it, “she would have given it all away by Friday.”
“Sometimes,” says the Rev. Koonce, “her hygiene wasn’t the best either. Someone would give her some clothes and she would really wear them. Finally, I’d say to her, ‘OK, Jeanne, it’s time for a change of clothes.’ ”
In an eccentric way, of course, the traits also were her “charm.”
Dedicated to routine and hell-bent on delivering the daily paper (she was on her Champaign News-Gazette route when she died, but also had a Pantagraph route), she gained a big following.
“She was the best carrier we ever had, and she was so enthusiastic about it,” says Pantagraph subscriber Susan Cramer, who lives on Eyer Street in Gibson City.
“You could set your clock by her,” says Linda Albrecht.
“My newspaper was always here,” says Evadna Mooney, over on Carroll.
“She was so efficient,” adds Maury Whalen, city operations coordinator for The Pantagraph. “She’d be there, waiting for the (delivery) truck at 3 a.m. She was just a joy.”
So it was the other morning when her customers knew something was wrong, not because of the sirens, but because their papers hadn’t arrived by 6 a.m.
“That wasn’t like Jeanne,” says Rosalind “Rusty” Olivero, the Elliott Café owner who later planted the cross on Illinois 9.
“She was a lady forgotten in so many ways in life,” says Lisa Koonce, “but leaves us with a great void in her death.”
Or, as her father-in-law, Bishop Koonce, puts it: “She lived to get those papers out.”
Sadly, or maybe joyously, she died doing it, too.
Bill Flick is at firstname.lastname@example.org.