Former Chicago life guards raise glasses of lemonade in memory of Eleanor Aren at North Beach. Eleanor passed away at the age of 85 on July 3. The former life guards used lemonade in the toast in honor of the lemonade Eleanor would frequently bring to life guards while they were on duty. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune / July 15, 2012)
9:49 p.m. CDT, July 15, 2012
They stood at the edge of the beach late Sunday afternoon, North Avenue lifeguards of beach days past, ready to pay tribute. But exactly where should the memorial be held?
“Her old spot,” George Velisaris called out.
They headed out onto the sand. Everyone knew where it was: midway into the sand on Beach No. 2, just north of the North Avenue overpass over Lake Shore Drive.
Eleanor Arens occupied that spot for at least 60-odd years, and was a frequent beach visitor even longer, since her childhood in the early 1930s.
She was an instantly recognizable fixture along the lakefront, ensconced amidst an elaborate assemblage of beach chairs wrapped in a canvas windbreak or feeding flocks of birds that circled around her head.
But the Bird Lady of North Avenue Beach has flown.
Arens, 85, died of atherosclerosis on July 3, leaving behind memories of a summer-long beach party and the lifeguards’ best friend.
“Eleanor was like part of the beach,” said Joe Pecoraro, 82, the legendary longtime head of Chicago Park District beaches and pools, now retired, who attended the beach memorial.
He met her in 1949 when he was a rookie lifeguard at North Avenue, and became a friend for years. “Eleanor and her mother used to come down and feed the lifeguards,” he said. “Even on a bad day, they’d come down just to drop off some biscuits or rolls for the lifeguards. They never forgot the kids.”
The kids never forgot her.
Now grownups, they turned a lifeguard reunion they had planned for Sunday into a tribute. Over pounding music at Castaways, the rooftop restaurant at the beach, they told how Arens had looked out for them.
“We’d out there in the sun four hours straight, and just when you were about to give out because of third, here came Eleanor with lemonade,” said Velisaris, who worked at North Avenue from 1988 to 1993 and organized the memorial.
Everyone remembered the lemonade. It was the best they had ever tasted, and Arens somehow managed to serve it over ice, even after she had been sitting on the beach for hours.
“Every morning I would beg – beg! – to work on Beach 2,” said Leanne Fanelli.
It wasn’t just the lemonade. Arens gave out peaches, too – sweet, juicy ones that rivaled the lemonade- and grapes, cookies and sandwiches.
And not just for the lifeguards. Her beach encampment became a daily party, said Mary Beth Sammons, who was not at the memorial but grew up as part of the beach scene because her mother knew Arens for more than 60 years.
“There were famous and not-famous people from all walks of life who knew her, and would stop by to say hi,” Sammons said. “She created a community for these disparate people like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
It didn’t end when summer did. Arens invited beach people, including some who were homeless, to her home for her Christmas parties.
“She had the most wonderful parties,” said Isabel Von Driska, Sammons’ mother. “She was the best hostess.”
She was kind and generous, her friends say. She helped pay college costs for several young people in her neighborhood who needed help, said Velisaris. And when Arens learned that her Polish caregiver’s daughter had a cleft palate, she arranged for a surgeon to correct it, without charge.
“She helped support me,” said that daughter, Zofia Starosciak, now 49 and a radiation technologist living in Brookfield. “I didn’t know the language, I was going to school – she would help me with immigration, everything. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be able to make it.”
Famously, she fed birds on a massive scale, hauling numerous 25-bags of seed to the circular drive off the parking lot.
“The birds knew her car,” Pecoraro said. “When Eleanor’s car would enter the circle, all the birds would gather around and sit on the fence and wait for her.”
She also fed birds at her homes, on the Northwest Side and then in Melrose Park. Dismayed neighbors complained, and Arens was ticketed numerous times.
She was following in parental footsteps. It was her mother, Katharina Baumgartner, who started feeding the birds on the lakefront.
Arens’ parents were Austrian immigrants. Her father, who had been given passage to the U.S. when he was mustered out of the Austrian Imperial Navy after World War I, went to North Avenue Beach frequently.
“This was the Depression,” said Katherine Arens, Eleanor’s her daughter, professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “It was where you went.”
Baumgartner was an iconic beach presence herself. When she died in the early 1980s, six lifeguards served as pallbearers, in uniform of white jeans, lifeguard shirts and jackets, and whistles.
Arens worked as a corporate paralegal for various law firms. Von Driska met her when they worked for law firms in the same La Salle Street building.
“We used to go ice skating together,” Von Driska said. “That’s where she met her husband, at the ice skating rink.” They became part of a sociable group of friends who went out to plays and dinner for years.
Arens’ husband, Edward, a field engineer with General Electric, died in 1998.
She kept going to the beach. “She went as long as she could go,” her daughter said, until ill health intervened about four years ago.
The young lifeguards fought over who one would get to help the aging Arens. “She was like our North Avenue grandma,” said Nora Kennelly, 22.
“Toward the end, we took her in a wheelchair loaned to us by the boat house,” said Pamela Myers, her caregiver.”We walked her into the water.”
“Oh, she loved that beach.”
The beach loved her back.
The lifeguards stood in a circle at her spot, the sand golden, the water a rich, rolling blue, the air warm, the beach perfect.
“Today we are here to honor one of the most special people on the beach – someone who took care of everyone, whether it was a bird or a person,” Velisaris said. “She took care of all of us, and the world is a better place for her.”
The lifeguards raised their Solo cups.
“To Eleanor Arens,” Velisaris said.
“Eleanor Arens,” they chorused.
And they drank a toast.