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.
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.
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.