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History: The Hard-Knock Life

Former wards of the Angel Guardian Orphanage recount their harrowing experience.

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Betsy Waffle vividly remembers the chain-link fence at Angel Guardian Orphanage, the Rogers Park institution where she spent her childhood from the age of 12 on. Six feet tall and covered with high bushes, it divided the playground, separating the boys from the girls. "My brother Tom lived on the other side," she says. "After dinner, when everyone would go out to play, I'd go to the top of the slide to look for him."

If Betsy and Tom made eye contact, they'd meet at the yellow line, a painted stripe on the blacktop between the end of the fence and the dining hall. The space was big enough to drive a car through, but the kids knew better than to cross it. Otherwise, Betsy saw her brother only once every two weeks, during Sunday visitations. "They sent him to another place eventually," she says. "And I lost all contact with my two other brothers." But over the next six years, the other girls in the orphanage became her surrogate family. "I'm really much closer to some of them than I am to my siblings," she says.

In its heyday Angel Guardian housed as many as 900 children in communal cottages on a 40-acre campus near Devon and Ridge (the site belongs to Misericordia today). It closed in 1974 after a 109-year run. But some of the orphans have made an effort to stay in touch, and last month nearly 50 of them got together for lunch in the party room of a Best Western in Elk Grove Village. Waffle, now 53, was there, wearing a name tag with "42-9" written in Magic Marker in the upper left corner. Others wore similar combinations of numbers, the first designating what cottage they lived in, the second their case number. "The nuns, they'd only call you by your number, never your name," Waffle said. "It was on all my clothes, in my underwear."

The lunch was part of a weekend-long reunion organized by two former wards, Sylvia Huante and Mary Beth Wiley. They sent out 500 formal invitations and spread the word through Craigslist and a message board that had been set up by another former orphan almost ten years ago. The luncheon was a fairly low-key affair; Huante and Wiley had planned some outdoor party games to loosen everyone up--badminton, horseshoes, croquet--but none were needed.

"Baby House! Baby House!" a trim man in glasses shouted across the room, his voice cracking with emotion. "Do you remember me?"

"Sure I do," said Joe Ellis, reaching out to embrace him. "You're Angel Camareno."

Ellis and Camareno first met in Baby House, the toddler cottage. They hadn't seen each other since graduating from Angel Guardian's high school in the early 60s. "While we were there, there were about 700 kids," Ellis said.

Camareno corrected him, good-naturedly. "835. That was the round number they kept throwing at us."

Ellis said everything at the orphanage was highly regimented. "We lived by the clock. Got up at the same time, went to church at the same time." Camareno chimed in. "We went to school in formation, went to church in formation. The year after I got out of high school I went into the military. Basic training was a party. You were used to people yelling at you and beating on you."

At a nearby table, Maria Bailey, a realtor from San Diego, was introducing herself by the name most people knew: Mary Jo Piludu. The oldest of ten children, she was placed at Angel Guardian in 1960 after her father, a merchant marine, was deported for having an expired green card. Her mother was subsequently institutionalized after suffering a nervous breakdown. Maria was in seventh grade at the time. Six of her brothers and sisters joined her at Angel Guardian; the other three, who were younger, landed in foster homes.

Maria says the nuns didn't let her or her siblings speak Spanish, and because they thought her name sounded "too Mexican" they changed it to Mary Jo. "I was very angry," she says. "The first day, I had already made my plan of escape. I ran away and went back to my house, but it was all boarded up, so I went to a girlfriend's. Her parents called the police. They came by and picked me up."

Most of the people at the luncheon were in their mid-40s to early 60s. They were seated according to the year they graduated from high school. Paul Doetz, class of '41, was the oldest by far, and he spent a good chunk of the early afternoon by himself, flipping through yearbooks. Eventually Sylvia Huante invited him to sit at the 1960s table. Now a retired salesman, Doetz left Angel Guardian at 16 and got a job in a print shop, plying a trade he'd learned at the orphanage. A couple years later he joined the marines, and when he got out he went to Bradley University on the GI Bill. Like everyone else, he had his share of bad memories. "We had this one nun, she was nuts. They put her away," he said. "You know what happened? We had sour soup. I ate it and threw it up. I was just a little boy. She put it back in the bowl and made me eat it, and I couldn't do a thing about it. Later on she threw me against the wall and cracked my head."

Waffle said beatings were part of the routine. "We used to get whacked with the radiator brushes. It was like a little broom you'd use to clean under the radiators. And man, they would just whack you. If you got out of line, you talked in church, whatever they felt like hitting you for. Some of the nuns were really sinister and the kids would just get the hell beat out of them. They'd have bloody noses. Luckily I was in a good cottage. The nun there was so old, I think she only hit me once."

By the time the gathering drew to a close at 5 PM, the party room's air conditioning was on its last legs. Windows had been opened and fans turned on. Reluctantly, people began to say their good-byes. Joe Ellis and Angel Camareno shook hands and made plans to get together soon. "It was such a surprise," Ellis later said of their reunion. "We grew up here in Chicago, and it turns out we're both living within 60 miles of each other in Iowa. We used to do musical skits together. He played drums and I played trumpet.

"It was a harrowing experience, growing up at Angel Guardian," he continued. "But it gets to be almost family. It's more than just this is the guy I went to school with. This is somebody I went to school with, ate with, went to church with. Slept in the same dormitory. Angel Guardian was home, believe me."

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