JOLIET – Willie Mae White lived at the bus stop.
She would occasionally stay with her sister, or a friend, or a homeless shelter, or at a hospital. But she always seemed to return to the bus stop in the 200 block of North Chicago Street in downtown Joliet.
On Tuesday morning, Willie Mae White was found dead at that bus stop shelter, a victim of the below-freezing temperatures. She was 55 years old.
A preliminary autopsy confirmed Willie Mae died from cold exposure. The temperature fell to 1 degree Tuesday morning, with a wind chill well below zero. Paramedics found her in the bus stop shelter at 2:30 a.m.
“She doesn’t have to worry about being cold anymore,” said Audrey Laye, who works downtown and knew Willie Mae. “I’m sorry it had to be like that. It’s sad. We all have to go. I wish it could have been under better circumstances.”
Willie Mae was as well-known a figure on Chicago Street at the Chicken-n-Spice restaurant – where people would frequently buy her food – and at the Illinois State Police building, whose employees would come out on their breaks to sit and talk to her.
Some of those employees even chased down a mugger who robbed Willie Mae one day at the bus stop. They caught the thief and reported him to the police, according to Laye, an information service specialist for the ISP.
“We kind of watched out for her,” Laye said.
“It’s heartbreaking for anyone to be outside in the cold, especially the elderly. But I don’t know if she had choices. Sometimes we make the wrong ones.”
Battalion Chief Jeff Carey said Willie Mae became well-known to downtown ambulance crews during the last decade.
“People would see she was passed out or sleeping and were concerned enough to call for an ambulance,” Carey said. “Sometimes she didn’t want to go, sometimes she did.”
Carey said Willie Mae White would occasionally tease and joke around with the firefighters who came to pick her up.
“She was never mean. [Paramedics] didn’t have any problems with her,” Carey said. “It’s sad that there are places in the area for her to stay, but she didn’t want to go. She just wanted to be left alone.”
Willie Mae often refused transport to the hospital. She would leave friends’ homes who would bring her in from the cold. Her sister couldn’t even convince her to stay at her home, according to Lorraine Edwards, Willie Mae’s niece.
“No one could really force her to stay,” Edwards said. “We always let her know we were here for her. She had some mental problems, but she knew how to take care of herself.
“She loved to be outside.”
Edwards said that Willie Mae would stay at the house for a while. Then when Edwards’ grandparents came back from work one day, Willie Mae would be gone, likely back to the bus stop on Chicago Street.
Edwards said Willie Mae, who originally is from Louisiana, used to dance, and she loved telling stories about her boyfriends.
“She had a bubbly personality,” Edwards said. “She was a sarcastic person. She loved to laugh. … She was well-loved.”
But no matter what her family said, they couldn’t persuade Willie Mae to stay home.
John Goodwin, who works at a convenience store at 150 N. Chicago St., met Willie Mae four years ago when he, too, was homeless in Joliet.
“She was a nice person,” Goodwin said. “She was a little bit on the off side. She had her problems, definitely. I know she stayed at the shelter for a while.”
Willie Mae would occasionally come into Goodwin’s store, sometimes buying food, and was sometimes given it.
“She would always pay me back. Always,” Goodwin said. “She was a very happy person. Sometimes she would just sit out [by the bus stop] and sing.”
Pat Reimer, manager of Chicken-n-Spice, said she’s seen the paramedics called to the bus stop a number of times when Willie Mae had collapsed. She occasionally sold food to Willie Mae when she had enough money to eat and let her use the bathroom when she needed.
Reimer said she could see Willie Mae’s health deteriorating over time. She would spend weeks and weeks just sitting at that bus stop, Reimer said.
“She became a victim of that little, tiny bus stop,” she said.
A myriad of factors – her health, her stubbornness, her past choices – could have been reasons Willie Mae stayed at that bus stop. No one on Chicago Street knows for sure.
But many who knew her believed she was a soul worth saving.
• The Herald-News reporter Brian Stanley contributed to this story.
Places to Go
When it gets cold, there are places for people to go. Daybreak Center operates 24-hours a day, 365 days a year and provides emergency housing and supportive services to individuals and families who are homeless. Daybreak also acts as a warming center and will not turn people away during freezing temperatures. Find them at 611 E. Cass Street Joliet, IL 60432 or call 815-774-4663.