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Local News

Joliet woman shied limelight, served famliy and church

JOLIET – “Oh, if I could have a portion of her spirit!”

So said Linda Aguilar of Joliet when discussing her mother, Zelda Ellis of Joliet. Linda is referring to the Bible story where Elisha, before the prophet Elijah is taken up into heaven, asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.

“She always led you back to the Bible and God but not in an overkill, in your face way,” Linda said. “Her life was her witness.”

After Zelda’s death, the grandchildren wanted Zelda’s autoharps, Linda said. Perhaps this was a different way of retaining her spirit.

That’s because Zelda, who loved music and owned her father’s guitar and ukulele and insisted all six of her children take piano lessons, never played an instrument herself until she was in her 40s. Zelda taught herself the autoharp because it was easy to learn and then passed that skill to her grandchildren, Linda said.

“She bought several autoharps, so each kid could have one,” Linda said.

Zelda lived her life in the unassuming background – and that is where Zelda’s accomplishments flourished, Linda said. Saying Zelda lived for God and family sounds simple, until one learns how Zelda put that concept into action.

When the family lived in Lockport and the children attended Taft School, Zelda was active in its parent/teacher organization, the band parents group and raising money for the eighth-grade trip, a 10-day multi-state excursion that generally ended in Washington, D.C., Linda said.

“She worked the concession stands and hot dog days,” Linda said. “When you have six children in as many years, it meant she worked for those eighth-grade trips six years in a row.”

Zelda’s children fell asleep at night to the sound of Zelda reading to them and awoke the next morning to the same voice, for Zelda would place a chair in the hall and read until everyone was ready to begin their day, Linda said.

Her hospitality and graciousness began at mealtime and continued throughout the day. Anyone – anytime – was welcome to sit at the table. During drives to the flowing well at Pilcher Park, Linda always stopped before the statue of Robert Pilcher and thanked him for the beautiful park.

Zelda and her husband, Jackston (deceased), grew an extensive garden and canned everything from vegetables to fruits to juices to jams, Linda said. In the late 1970s, Zelda and Jackston owned and operated a downtown Joliet resale shop, Scott Shop.

“They were very frugal,” Linda said. “They always repurposed, reused and recycled, long before ‘going green’ was popular.”

But Zelda also worked outside the home. She was the church secretary, first for Faith Bible Church in Joliet, then simultaneously for Fellowship Church in Joliet and High Road Church in Romeoville and finally for First Baptist Church in Joliet, where Zelda eventually retired.

At High Road, Zelda also was the Sunday school superintendent and deaconess. She oversaw missionary projects, “backward” clubs for children and helped with Vacation Bible School. Zelda also lent a hand to food pantries at both Fellowship and High Road, Linda said.

“If you saw her lying on the couch watching TV,” Linda said, “then you knew she was seriously sick.”

Zelda and Jackston met at the teen group that eventually formed the Christian Youth Center in Joliet. They honeymooned at Riverside Bible Camp in Wisconsin and spent their yearly one week of vacation volunteering at that camp, Linda said, with all six children in tow. They even mortgaged their house to lend the money to a church group so it could buy a building, Linda said.

In those final years when Zelda had dementia, it was her love of Broadway songs and church hymns that sustained her, Linda said. In the week before Zelda died – on April 20 at the age of 83 – the VHS tape, “The Sound of Music” was playing in her room.

“As I was standing at the window, I heard from behind me, as clear as can be, her singing, ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music,’” Linda said. “Here she was in hospice care, hardly able to speak or make a sound, and she’s singing.”

• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or

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