One of the most interesting people I have met through this blog is Maria (Fry) Race, a Springfield native and fourth-generation Lithuanian-American who lives in Elmhurst. Ill. and is director of environmental services for Edison Mission Energy, owner of 4 coal plants and 31 wind farms.
Maria grew up in the Laketown neighborhood, the older of two daughters of Jeanette (Tonila) Gooch and Frederick Fry. Her grandmother, Agnes (Tonila) Gooch, grew up on Reynolds St., one of nine children of John George Tonila and Agatha (Mankus) Tonila, who immigrated separately from Lithuania around 1900. Great-grandfather Tonila was a coal miner. One of his sons, John Tonila, (Maria’s great uncle and a Golden Gloves champ, according to family lore) gave his life in the WW II Battle of Monte Cassino near Rome, Italy in May 1944, and was memorialized with other parish war dead on a special plaque in Springfield’s Lithuanian-Catholic St. Vincent de Paul Church.
Maria’s parents were married and Maria was baptized at St. Vincent de Paul’s. “My younger sister Stefanie and I were the first in our family to go to college,” she recalls, “and my mother pushed us hard to be successful because she wished she had gotten the chance to go.” Stefanie had straight “A”s at the U of I in Champaign (Bronze Plaque 1987) and went to UIC for her medical degree. (Stefanie is now saving lives as a cardiologist in Boise, Idaho.)
Maria pursued a double major in art and physics at Parkland Community College, then got a B.S. in physics at the U of I Champaign, followed by a master’s in environmental technology at the New York Institute of Technology. Maria’s spirituality conflicted with the defense work that would have been the easiest application for her physics degree. So she moved into the environmental field, working in hazardous waste management. Now at Mission Energy, Maria says, “I manage people, compliance, and policy. It’s a very difficult field–very challenging–but very interesting.”
Over the years, Maria explored many religions: Judaism, Buddhism, and Unitarianism. But she says, “I have gone back to my Catholic roots, as the ancient voices called me from my ancestors on both the Lithuanian and Irish sides of the family.”
About a year ago, she started painting icons, which has become a passion. She is also an oblate at Monastery of the Holy Cross in the Chicago Bridgeport neighborhood, where there once was a Lithuanian church. Maria explains, “This means that I follow liturgy of the hours and St. Benedict’s Rule as closely as I can as a lay person living in the world. I regularly go to the monastery for classes. I am particularly devoted to St. Hildegard of Bingen, and have been to visit her relics. She was an artist and scientist and I feel she guides my life.”
Starting in the mid-1990s, while Lithuania was re-establishing itself and struggling to escape the grinding poverty of the long Soviet era, Maria began donating to medical relief charity Lithuanian Mercy Lift. http://www.lithuanianmercylift.org/about.html Then she began helping LML president Ausrine Karaitis locate older or discarded medical equipment in the UIC labs, where both women were working, to send to Lithuanian hospitals and nursing homes. In 2011, just after LML disbanded, Maria accompanied Ausrine to visit some of the facilities and people they had helped.
During that trip with her husband Tim, who also has Lithuanian roots, Maria got to visit with former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and his wife Alma. (Mr. Adamkus was a Lithuanian-born U.S. citizen and a regional U.S. EPA administrator when he ran for and was elected to Lithuania’s presidency.)
While in Lithuania, Maria also took a rosary that had been at her grandmother Agnes’s grave at Calvary Cemetery and placed it at the famous Hill of Crosses in Siauliai. “It was hard to leave it there because I had had it for a long time, but it felt right,” Maria recalls. She has four sons: 17-year old twins Austin and Alec, who are high school seniors going to ISU and DePaul University next year. Her other sons are Ian, 15, and Julian, 12.