THE STORY OF CONSTANTINE (CONNIE) LELYS AND HIS FAMILY
Constantine (Connie) Lelys was born in Musnikai Lithuania, the son of Ramualdas Lelys and Salomeja Szeffer Lelys on October 22, 1919. Connie married fellow Baltic refugee Helgi Lilles, of Estonia, in 1948 in Linz Austria, where their first son Michael was born.
Helgi and Connie immigrated to the United States in 1950 with 2-year-old Michael gravely ill. Michael was hospitalized in New York with an extreme high fever due to a small-pox vaccine that had been administered via a dirty needle during the family’s trans-Atlantic voyage. Connie and Helgi’s dream for a new life in the land of opportunity was almost shattered as they awaited the news that their 2-year-old son may not survive.
With God’s mercy, Michael survived and the family moved to Springfield, Illinois with the assistance of a loan from Catholic Charities. Connie took his first Job as a custodian for St. Patrick’s Parish under Pastor Father Haggerty. He maintained the buildings, and kept the school and church furnaces stoked with coal, even when that required getting up at 4 in the morning and riding a bicycle across town to St. Pat’s during the winter months. It wasn’t always pleasant work, but Connie took pride in the fact that he had been given a job, and he did that job to the best of his ability.
Connie joined the Lithuanian Catholic Parish of St. Vincent de Paul, where he was very active in the church choir and all the social events of the parish. He was a close friend of the Pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church, the Rev. S.O. Yunker, and even became Father Yunker’s personal barber, once Father learned that Connie had somewhere acquired the skill of cutting hair (probably practicing on his son Mike!)
Like many local displaced persons from WW II, Connie later was employed by Allis Chalmers, where he thought he had done a bad job when he was laid off after one month, not realizing that lay-offs at factories were quite routine. Later, Connie went to work at Gothard’s Manufacturing on Clear Lake Ave. After a short time, Gothards moved to S. Carolina, but offered some employees like Connie transfers to Sangamo Electric.
After working at Sangamo Electric for a brief period, with the help of Doctor Alan Smith, his dentist, Connie acquired an office assistant position with the Illinois Supreme Court. There, he befriended Clerk of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Earl Searcy, who admired his beautiful handwriting and great work ethic and suggested he apply to the State of Illinois Highway Division (now IDOT) for a draftsman position. Fearing he could not pass the civil service exam (in English, of course), Connie he studied intensively, and with the help of Mrs. Searcy, passed the test.
At that time (1960), Helgi and Connie’s second son, Mark, was born. After 5 years, Connie transferred to the Illinois Department of Conservation and retired from that Department in 1984 after 20 years of service as an engineering technician.
Connie loved and lived his 80 years of life to the fullest. He enjoyed spending time with his family, particularly his grandsons Christopher, Matthew, and Joseph.
In the late 1990s, Grandson Christopher purchased the home next door to “Grandpa Connie” and it wasn’t uncommon to see them talking to each other about the status of Grandpa’s garden, fishing, or just about anything two guys would talk about.
Connie set a high work ethic for his sons Mike (wife Mary Ann) and Mark (wife Jennifer) and reminded them constantly that he wanted them to have a better life than his own. He loved God and his family, and reminded everyone at family gatherings that God and his family were very important to him.
Connie could play the accordion, violin, mandolin, guitar, organ, and probably any other instrument he picked up. He could also speak multiple languages, including Lithuanian, German, Polish, Russian, Ukranian, Latin, and some Estonian.
During his earlier years, he played the aaccordion for many different gatherings, including Lithuanian and Estonian picnics and any other occasion where a “squeeze box” might liven things up. When Connie was invited to a party, the “squeeze box” was always the first item loaded into his car “just in case.” After his heart surgery in 1992, Connie decided to allow his son Mike to take over the accordion playing, and he would accompany Mike with his mandolin and coax Mike to play the many European and American folk songs familiar to him. He never criticized Mike for not being as proficient as him on the accordion… (Probably because he didn’t want to admit that his years of investment of money and time in Mike’s accordion lessons hadn’t made Mike a Frankie Yankovic!)
Connie introduced his two sons Mike and Mark to deer hunting in Pope and Pike Counties prior to his retirement. He taught them all the secrets of the hunt, yet never shot a deer himself in almost 20 years. He enjoyed just being outdoors with his sons, and he taught them to respect and enjoy nature.
His sons firmly believe that he could have harvested deer many times, but felt sorry for the poor animals and upon their arrival would shoo them away with his handkerchief, and then return to camp with stories like, “I saw some but they were too far away….or there were too many trees in the way to shoot” or………”the darn vodka from the previous night of celebrating around the campfire caused me to fall asleep in the woods while waiting for my deer.”
Connie enjoyed an “occasional” glass of beer, and was always eager to have someone to sit down with him to just talk. His knowledge of World War II politics and his post-war stories about Russia and Lithuania could keep folks listening for hours. He could also convey the hardships of living in a displaced person’s camp with his wife Helgi prior to immigrating to the U.S. in 1950, yet he never complained about those hardships, only speaking of how lucky he was to have himself and his immediate family in the best country in the world!
Connie died July 24, 2000, in Springfield.
His brothers, Jonas and Pranas, and sisters Salomea Vasiliauskas, Danute Becker, and Janina (Nijole) and Jadwiga Lelys, all immigrated to Adelaide, Australia.