Ellen (Jurs) Butkus, 69, a nurse whose work on helping seniors age in place led to Senior Connections, died Nov. 28, three years, three months and 26 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was an active and involved Evanston resident for 43 years.

Ellen Fay (Jurs) Butkus Credit: Wendi Kromash

A celebration of life open to the community will be scheduled early in 2023.

Butkus and Alexander, the man she eventually would marry, grew up in Mundelein, Ill. and attended the same high school, although he was a year ahead of her.

They shared the same English class, which is where he first noticed her. He was attracted to her sharp mind in addition to her megawatt smile, but they really met that fall when they both showed up to help build and decorate a homecoming float. They dated steadily the next two years and were each other’s dates to their senior proms. 

The move to Evanston

Butkus married her husband in 1974 and in 1975 the two moved to Evanston, where her husband was going to start a graduate degree at Northwestern University.

Butkus gave birth to her son, Matthew, in 1977 and the following year she graduated from the University of Illinois Chicago with a Bachelor of Science in nursing. One of her first jobs was as a nurse at Evanston Hospital.

After her daughter, Abigail, was born, Butkus put her nursing career on hold and became happily absorbed in family life, including being a “second mom” to many of her children’s friends.

Around 1991, Reba Place Church wanted to focus on helping seniors age in place and sought a parish nurse to manage this program. Butkus was recruited and recommended for this position, and it was a revelatory experience for her and the seniors she helped: She had found her calling.

Senior Connections grew out of this initial program. It was based on the idea of recruiting vetted, trained volunteers and pairing them with older people in the community for visiting or calling once a week for conversation.

The program supported seniors being able to live in their homes with dignity and respect, realizing that every person has a story to tell and that friendships across generations and ethnicities bind communities together. Thousands of people have benefitted from this program, both seniors and friendly visitors.

Credit: Wendi Kromash

Bob Reece, former chair of the McGaw YMCA, spoke about Butkus, as well as his elderly aunt, who grew up in rural Mississippi, and whose life was enhanced by participating in Senior Connections.

Reece said Butkus was “a beautiful person who made a huge impact on people and organizations. She was very spiritual and did not seek attention for herself.” Reece’s wife, Patty, described Butkus as “kind, sincere and thoughtful with the warmest smile. It was an honor to be in her company.”

Another longtime friend, Glynis Doyle, said Butkus “was the heart of Senior Connections. She loved talking to seniors and the seniors loved talking with her because she listened to them. If someone was struggling, Ellen found appropriate resources for them.”

Her husband told a story about his wife’s dedication: It was the day after a big appreciation and recognition event at the North Shore Hotel and she was looking forward to her day off. But she got a call early in the morning -– one of her friends had lost a hearing aid at the event.

Butkus called the hotel and found out all the soiled tablecloths and napkins were to be picked up by a laundry service in 30 minutes. Butkus was at the hotel 10 minutes later and in Spanish, recruited staff to help her search the trash and sort through dirty linens. They found the missing hearing aid.

Elizabeth Gordon met Butkus when Gordon worked at the North Shore Senior Center. They became fast friends, lunch companions and book group buddies. Gordon said, “Not only was Ellen a remarkable human being but she was also community-minded and devoted to faith, family and friends.”

Butkus’ many loves

Butkus loved being in nature, from hiking in the woods to sitting by the lake to savor the sunsets. Nature inspired much of her journaling, blog posts and poems.

She loved to travel and enjoyed exploring the world with her husband and family. She adored her family unreservedly and was positively besotted with her grandchildren. In the few years before they relocated, most Wednesday evenings Butkus could be found driving to Oswego so she could spend one or two days taking care of the boys. She loved every minute of their company.

A dear friend, Pastor Charlotte Lehman, lead pastor at Reba Place Church, said of Butkus, “She encouraged our community to age well by teaching classes for adults about aging issues so that seniors, families and caregivers would have both the best quality of life and the most peaceful kind of end-of-life experiences as possible, which is such a gift, to not be so afraid of death or thinking of it as something to be avoided or never discussed.

“She got people talking in healthy ways. We’ve had many peaceful passing experiences in our community here, and it’s because of people like Ellen we have navigated this process.”

In 2016, Butkus was honored with the Presence St. Francis Inspire Award given annually to a community leader. The award recognizes inspirational leadership from an individual who has gone above and beyond the call to duty to advance community well-being. 

After three years, Butkus’ treatment was no longer working. She stopped treatment on Sept. 7 and began hospice care at home on Nov. 23. She died surrounded by her family, filled with faith and love.

Besides her husband of 48 years, Alexander, Butkus is survived by her three children, daughters Abigail, Gwendolyn and son Matthew and his wife, Lisa Johnson; two grandsons, Charlie and Owen; her brother, Jeffry Jurs, and many nieces and nephews.

Services will be private. Donations in Butkus’ memory in may be made to Reba Place Church, 535 Custer St, Evanston, IL 60202. Please note Ellen Butkus/Senior Connections on the memo line of the check or electronic payment. Letters sent to the Butkus family in care of Reba Place Church will be forwarded. 

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

Join the Conversation

9 Comments

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Al
    The celebration of Ellen’s life was very touching and inspirational. She is amazing. You have well celebrated an excellent life, Ellen’s life. You and Ellen shared a wonderful life together and with many others. Thank you and Ellen for including me as part of it.
    John Halbleib
    NW Kellogg, 1977

  2. Ellen was my only sister being a brother of 4 others my mother knew “Bill” from our old church in Lake Zurich . After my dad died she dated him and soon became his wife. My children called him Papa Bill. Ellen was a good & loving woman. I lived 300+ miles from her and only talked about my mother’s cancer twice before her passing. God bless you Little Sister. Al

  3. Thank you for your great story about a wonderful person. In addition to her work with Senior Connections, Ellen was also a stalwart supporter of Ten Thousand Villages In Evanston, a fair-trade volunteer driven retail store in South Evanston which supports third-world artisans and their families from over 30 countries. She was an ever-present volunteer at the store, caring for the other volunteers and staff, and helping arrange product displays. I had the privilege of working closely with her during her two terms on the Board of Ten Thousand Villages, and she brought all her qualities of kindness, thoughtfulness and dedication to her work there, continuing even after her move to Oswego and later her failing health. Much loved, she will be sorely missed by all of us who knew her.

    1. Amen to Charlie Koop’s paean. Ellen was an inspiration to peanut-gallery volunteers like me and especially to fellow members and leaders of the Ten Thousand Villages board, including Charlie and my wife, Diane, who now generally avoids doing email.

  4. Condolences to Ellen’s family and many friends. I had the pleasure of serving on Senior Connections board some years ago and recognized immediately what a special and dedicated person she was to this important organization. Her love of the elderly in the Evanston community inspired me to become a volunteer as well. It truly can be said, “she made a difference in this world”!

  5. I worked with Ellen and Senior Connections staff, helping get the word out. She was as creative and relaxed as she was organized and dedicated. I also taught some of her children in Sunday School. It was a privilege to have them all in our lives. She goes in grace, just as she lived .
    [For link to a short video about the Senior Connections program, see my YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/ITk-7g8jqAU

    ]

  6. Wendi Kromash, Thank you for writing such a beautiful obituary about Ellen. You really captured Ellen’s life and spirit. You are a very talented writer.

    My deepest condolences to the Butkus family.

  7. So sorry for your loss Al. We haven’t known you and El for very long, but we really love you both and will miss El’s beautiful and sweet presence at River Mist.