By Deirdre Graziano
August 6, 2023 was a beautiful day in the neighborhood when the Lincoln Park community gathered to pay tribute to one of Chicago’s musical greats, Ella Jenkins. Ella’s musical compositions and award winning concerts have blessed young and old around the world for three quarters of a century. Our Community joined together to honor Ella on her 99th birthday. Admirers, from far and close, gathered at Ella Jenkins Park on the rain stalled Sunday, all wanting to meet, to touch the beloved Ella. The heavens, we believe, held the rain back just for Ella. The Celebration occurred through the concerted efforts of Lincoln Central Association, Old Town Triangle Association, Ella’s original neighborhood church, Church of The Three Crosses, Rev. Leslie Ritter-Jenkins interim pastor, and Tim Ferrin, Producer/Director Ella Jenkins: We’ll Sing a Song Together.
America’s First Lady of Children’s Music: A Long Time Neighbor
Ella was a long-term Lincoln Park resident who lived quietly for decades on Mohawk Street. The tree-filled Mohawk street provided a safe sanctuary where Ella and her manager Bernadelle could greet neighbors and walk their beloved long-haired dachshunds without fanfare. Ella lived simply. Simply by choice. Her unobtrusive two-story townhouse sat across the street from a small neighborhood park, A park named after the notorious Chicago Alderman Paddy Bauler. A politician best known for the quote, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.” Ella and Paddy could not have been more different. The small, iron fenced park was a space Ella supported and cherished. Neighborhood children would joyously gather around Ella when, ukulele in hand, she would sing and share with them. All done without flourish, done in Ella’s open gentle way. For Ella, children were and are the true wealth of any community. A bench in Bauler Park eventually was dedicated to her, a small expression of gratitude from her community. Ella, supporting her neighborhood, frequented The Old Town School of Folk Music, our child-care centers and pre-schools even as she was gaining international fame. Awarded with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement, Ella was a woman who continuously gave. Gave to her neighborhood, gave to her city, gave to the world at large. Gave fully with no pretension. It was time, once again, her community felt, to give back to her.
Ella’s Arrival by Medical Transport
The honored First Lady of Children’s Music arrived at her 99th birthday celebration blanketed in her wheelchair with her oxygen tube dutifully connected. Neither were distractions, joy was already spreading across her face as she settled in to celebrate the day of her birth. Ella, her wheelchair a small throne, was immediately treated like royalty as lines of waiting admirers (from toddlers to seniors) patiently gathered to speak to or to touch her. Leaning in, her fans continually offered her their admiration and love. Ella is a woman who has done for the world of children’s folk music what peacemakers have done for World Peace. Her audience experienced this in their lives and their gratitude infiltrated the air. At times, as Ella received her well-wishers, her velvet, softer than soft brown eyes displayed a flittering of tears. A gentle woman offering a gentle smile to all those who came to pay her tribute was truly, quietly glowing. To everyone’s delight, Ella even joined in to softly sing with Susan Salidor, the event’s talented performer who graciously donated her performance in honor of a woman the singer long emulated and admired. When the crowd requested Susan to sing Ella’s acclaimed call and response song, Will You Feed my Cow, Ella joined in and the joy of all was near palpable.
One young visitor exemplified the heart-felt devotion Ella’s fans held for her. Struggling for balance, the boy with autism had come with his family after hours of driving from Wisconsin. A boy on a pilgrimage of sorts, initiated by his family, so he could personally offer Ella a birthday card he had created especially for her. His mother explained Ella’s songs resonated with the boy, connected with him in a significantly deep way. His smile was all embracing as he, supported by his mother, leaned in to present his card. All who waited appeared to be as devoted to Ella as this family.
Two of Lincoln Park’s aldermen Michele Smith and Vi Daley were present. These neighbors were instrumental in securing the original dedication of the park to Ella almost a decade ago. Together, Vi and Michele read the city’s Proclamation honoring Ella and presented Ella with the candle lit birthday cake as the crowd sang Happy Birthday to an emotionally moved Ella. Alderman Timmy Knudsen sent his deep regrets that he was unable to attend, but his chief-of-staff McKay Murphy was ever-present in the celebration.
Cakes and macaroons provided by Vanille, Sweet Mandy B’s and Church of The Three Crosses kept the crowd satiated. Balloon sculptures and face painting by Mary Macaron delighted the young. An art’s table allowed children to design and create Ella birthday cards. Photos of Ella throughout her career were lovingly displayed. Free kazoos provided by Alderman Knudsen and delicate oak tree samplings were distributed as Ella’s Pretty Trees All Around The World, the final song was sung.
A Civil and Children’s Rights Leader
Ella’s reputation goes far beyond the world of music, far beyond her neighborhood and her city. Her activism in children’s and civil rights is well documented. She was and continues to be a teacher and role model, a woman who always led with a gentle and accepting touch. Known as a Hidden Figure in the Fight for Civil Rights, Ella was an early member of CORE and a close, personal friend of John Lewis. Using music, Ella gently introduced, guided her audiences to the significance of African American heritage and universal brotherhood. Her understanding of child development was ever-present in her music. Ella, without didacticism, taught us all, through song, to respect and listen to children as few ever have.
Ella’s documentarian and close friend Tim Ferrin touchingly summed up Ella’s birthday experience: “On behalf of Ella, Bernadelle and myself we can’t thank you all enough for the pitch perfect celebration for Ella’s 99th on Sunday!
“It was such a lovingly planned and implemented event. Ella had a wonderful time and was obviously invigorated by the celebration and well wishes that were shared with her. The party was so expertly done and carried the perfect vibe and the park looked beautiful. There was even peppermint ice cream for Ella, which blew me away. As the party was about to officially start, Gayle Wald, Ella’s biographer who came in from DC remarked to me that ‘it was a Chicago event.’ I can’t thank you enough.
“As she was settling back in her room Sunday evening Ella was all smiles talking about what a wonderful day it was. I don’t think she’s been out anywhere other than doctor’s appointments since late 2019. This was a big deal.
“Thank you all for your love and consideration for Ella, Bernadelle and for myself. Thank you as well to the volunteers who made things run with seeming ease. You all knocked it out of the park yet again. It’s easy to see why Ella and Bernadelle were proud to call the neighborhood home for so many years.
“Thank you for your kindness and for honoring Ella. Let me know if I can help with anything down the road, including providing for Ella Jenkins Park. I’m sending my love and gratitude to you all.”
Our Thanks to Ella
We, in turn, continue to send our love and gratitude to Ella, an American treasure who once called our neighborhood home.
Ella’s original vinyls, cds, kazoos, t-shirts, shopping bag were sold at the event and still can be purchased through https://ellajenkinsfilm.bandcamp.com/merch. Enjoy Ella’s Music and Help Support Ella!