JOLIET – Emma McCullum of Joliet loved the cold weather. But that love came with heartache for the homeless.
“When it started getting cold, she started worrying about where people were staying,” said Emma’s husband, Weems McCullum of Joliet. “She’d say, ‘I wonder where people are staying tonight. It’s cold out there.’ ”
Emma couldn’t embrace the world, but she tried. In 1983, she and Weems began working at the food pantries at two Joliet churches, Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Second Avenue Baptist church, where the couple belonged for more than 60 years.
That ministry included serving meals to people in need. But distributing food wasn’t enough for Emma. She also baked homemade banana bread and shared it with the hungry.
“Just last week, the guys were talking, ‘Lord have mercy, we get no more banana bread,’ ” Weems said. “And I said, ‘Don’t be so fast. I’ve got one left in the freezer.’ ”
Edna Brass of Joliet, Emma’s daughter, said people loved Emma’s chicken and dumplings, sweet potato pie and greens. After Emma died, loved ones asked Edna if she had her mother’s recipe for chicken and dumplings. Unfortunately, Edna does not.
“She was never one to brag about her cooking or volunteer to cook for a large group,” Edna said. “But her cooking was so much better than a lot of people who did that.”
On the home front, if Emma owned it, she probably gave it away. She even carried extra aspirin in her purse, in case someone needed it.
“She should have applied for her own 501c3,” Edna said. “People came to the door to borrow anything: a cup of sugar, a cup of milk, ground beef and diapers.”
During the times a neighbor who owned a dozen expensive cats was hospitalized, Emma fed the cats. When the neighbor died, the cats became homeless and wandered to Emma’s house for meals. Weems now cares for the remaining six cats.
“I’ll keep feeding them as long as they keep coming,” Weems said.
Weems and Emma were from Mississippi and met in childhood. Attracted by Emma’s beauty, Weems knew he would marry her, which he did on Christmas Eve 1952 – he was 21, she was 17.
Through the years, Emma’s beautiful spirit grew. She was one of the first women hired at Caterpillar Tractor in 1966 – despite no previous factory experience – and she worked there for more than 30 years, Weems said.
During that time, Emma also raised her children, including one – Derrick “Donnie” McCullum – who had autism.
The other children are LaJean Grossett of Bolingbrook, Weems McCullum Jr. of Joliet and her stepson Thomas Bridges of Mississippi. Emma also looked after her family in Mississippi. She sent them clothes and paid the taxes on their homes, Edna said.
“She was a servant, humble, always in the background helping out, never up front,” Edna said.
Emma never left the house without being impeccably groomed, even though she rarely spent money on herself, Edna said. Emma never learned to drive, but she did take her only airplane ride in 2011 to see her first great-granddaughter, Avaylyn Martin, in Georgia.
Most importantly, Emma gave people her listening ear up until her death Jan. 19, her 83rd birthday.
“She was a wonderful person,” Weems said. “She was kind, sweet, giving and understanding. She was just a beautiful person, period.”
• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or email@example.com.