Francis Cahill, Jr. was born on April 5, 1922 in Chicago, Illinois. He was the oldest of four sons born to Francis Cahill, Sr. and Margaret (Eilerman) Cahill. Cahill’s parents met around 1920 when Margaret and her father boarded with Francis Sr.’s family at 4740 North Robey Street in Chicago, Illinois. Francis, Sr. was 22 years old—the eldest son living at home—and worked as a chauffeur for a garage. Margaret was 20 and labored as a press feeder for a printing company. The home housed a total of 13 people, which included Francis’s siblings, a brother-in-law, uncle, two boarders, and the Eilermans. Francis, Sr. and Margaret married in 1921.
Little is known of Francis, Jr.’s early childhood before 1927, when the Cahill family experienced a rough patch that ultimately resulted in the breakup of the family. In early 1927, Francis Cahill, Sr.’s mother urged him to move his family—including three young sons, Francis, Jr., James, and Daniel—to Dayton, Ohio so he could better provide for his family. Margaret was originally from Dayton and the couple had lived there briefly after their marriage in 1921. While in Dayton, Francis, Sr. worked briefly for the Frigidaire Corporation. Unfortunately, in June of that year, he was forced to return to Chicago because of the death of his mother. When he rejoined his family in Dayton one month later, he no longer had a job. This forced the family to move in with Margaret’s parents, who lived at 223 Franklin Street in Dayton.
On January 19, 1928, a pregnant Margaret placed five-year-old Francis and four-year-old James in the temporary care of the Montgomery County Children’s Home in Dayton, while she prepared to enter the maternity ward at St. Ann’s Hospital to give birth to her youngest son, John. In the application Margaret filled out to place her sons in the home, she stated that Francis, Sr. had been arrested at least a dozen times on charges of “drunkenness.” Margaret reported that Francis, Sr. deserted the family one last time after he left for Chicago in August 1927. She stated that he had not “contributed to the support of his family” since that time, not even remembering “his children at Christmastime.”
While Francis, Jr. and James stayed at the Montgomery County Children’s Home, Margaret’s mother cared for her other two children—16-month-old Daniel (her son with Francis, Sr.) and 10-year-old Mary, her daughter from a previous relationship. Margaret’s parents were not physically able to manage all four children while Margaret was confined to St. Ann’s maternity ward after the birth of her fifth child. Margaret’s mother was 64-years-old and her father “was handicapped by his age and the loss of one eye,” and could not find employment. After John was born, Margaret intended to reclaim Francis and James following her hospital stay. She also stated that she intended to go back to work while her mother watched all the children. However, it is unclear when or if any of this happened.
A major transition for the Cahill children occurred on May 12, 1930, when all four boys entered the Illinois Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home (renamed the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School, or ISSCS, in 1931) in Normal, Illinois. At the time of their entry into the Home, Francis was eight; James was six; Daniel was three; and John was just two-years-old. Francis, Sr., was unable to care for the children and petitioned for them to be placed at the Home. According to him, Margaret deserted Francis and James before the birth of John in 1928. This assertion perhaps shows that Margaret never reclaimed Francis and James from the Montgomery County Children’s Home after John’s birth. ISSCS intake paperwork stated that the “mother neglected [the] children and is said to be unfit. Father is a hard working man and interested in welfare of children. He is now earning 35.00 p[er] w[ee]k. Relatives are in poor circumstances and unable to assist to any extent. Maternal aunt, Mrs. [Catherine] Byrne is meanwhile caring for youngest child, John, with financial assistance from father.” Additionally, records show that Francis’s brother James was living at St. Joseph’s Home (the location of which is unknown), and his brother Daniel was in the Juvenile Detention Home, before they arrived at the ISSCS. Sadly, it was not uncommon for children to arrive at the Home with experiences of neglect or abuse. Many had previously stayed at other institutions, at which they had also possibly endured neglect or abuse. A lot of the children arrived with very little knowledge or understanding of their situation.
The ISSCS (or “the Home,” as it was often referred to) has a 114-year history. The origin of the Home began on January 19, 1864 when McLean County residents met to express their growing concerns “for children of deceased soldiers” and indigent children of Illinois Civil War veterans. The citizens sent a “‘memorial’ to the Illinois State Legislature to urge them to create a home for soldiers’ orphans.” The following year, the legislature established the “Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home” to provide care and education for indigent children of Illinois Civil War veterans as called for, but did not allot any funds for the creation of said home. Between 1865 and 1867, unsuccessful efforts were made to solicit subscriptions and donations for the Home. In March 1867, the Illinois State Legislature finally appropriated about $100,000 (or about $1.7 million in 2017) for the purchase of land, the construction of buildings, and for operating the Home. In April that same year, Jesse Fell, who was a significant figure in the founding of the Town of Normal and Illinois State Normal University (today known as Illinois State University), organized a group of citizens who raised pledges in the amount of $50,000 (or over $800,000 in 2017) in land, cash, and other considerations to campaign for the Home to be located in Normal. One month later, Fell’s dream came true when Normal was selected for the site.
The Home was located on a large tract of land in northeast Normal (today at the corner of Lincoln and Beech streets). While the Home was being constructed, two temporary homes were established in Bloomington and a third in Springfield, Illinois. Finally, on June 17, 1869, the new building for the Home was dedicated in Normal. The four-story structure housed all activities and had 180 children residing there.
As the needs of the Home grew (which included housing more children), new buildings and facilities were added throughout the years. In 1872, new buildings including a kitchen, laundry, boiler house, and steam plant were constructed. A school, later named McKinley Hall, was also built east of the main building. Nine years later, a hospital was added. In 1889, the State Legislature appropriated additional funds for the construction of a chapel, dining hall, playrooms, and bathrooms in the main building, along with a new boiler room, laundry, kitchen, and bakery. A primary school and kindergarten were also added.
Throughout most of the entire history of the Home, all children admitted were required to be the child of a veteran. Starting in 1899, “the law was amended to open the Home” to indigent children whose fathers had served in the Army or Navy of the United States during any war. Francis D. Cahill, Sr., served in the Illinois National Guard, starting on June 30, 1914. When the United States officially entered World War I on April 6, 1917, guardsmen were drafted into the U.S. Army later that year. Francis, Sr. served as a Bugler 1stClass in the 122nd U.S. Field Artillery of the 33rd Division. He served until June 7, 1919, just before meeting Margaret.
By court order, the children were not authorized for adoption. Instead, in 1932, the Juvenile Court of Cook County held custody hearings for Francis and James, concluding that they have “not proper care or guardianship” and that Francis, Sr. and Margaret “have wholly neglected…failed…and do neglect, fail to properly care for said child[ren] and that they and each of them are wholly unable to care for said child[ren] ….” The court removed the boys from parental guardianship (Francis on April 8 and James on November 8) and placed them in the custody of Ralph Spafford, superintendent of the ISSCS from 1921 to 1933, until they were 21 years of age, or sooner discharged in accordance of the law.
Francis first lived in Bell Cottage, where he was measured for clothes and shoes by Lillian McCance, the cottage’s house officer. Around 1933, he lived in Lawton Cottage with house officers Mr. and Mrs. Young. Lawton Cottage housed up to 29 boys, ages 12-15. His psychological report noted that “he spoke in a deep voice” and “lisps markedly.” According to his hospital report, he may have had trouble hearing. It was also found that his brother James had similar hearing issues, which led the hospital staff to believe that their issues were congenital.
The cottage parents tried very hard to make life in the Home as normal as possible for the children. On Fridays, the children were rewarded with a movie—first held in the chapel, and by the 1930s, held in the school auditorium. When they had some extra money, the children also liked heading to Tom Manning’s Store, located at 507 Pine St. in Normal, to buy candy and other treats. For many years, beginning in 1929, the representatives of every single American Legion post in Illinois made a “pilgrimage” to the Home in the summer to visit with the children. The annual Legion Day included a picnic lunch, games and amusements, and small gifts for the residents of the Home. For Christmas, everyone enjoyed a gift from Santa. Gino Ullian, a child who was living at the Home from 1933 to 1942, fondly remembered seeing Santa coming down the street beside his cottage with a bag of presents for the children, which they had picked out from a Sears catalog. Sports and recreational activities also kept the children occupied.
During Francis’s time at the Home, basketball, baseball, track and field, and many other recreational activities were popular. Swimming (in an outdoor pool from about 1925 until 1937 when the indoor pool was completed) was also greatly enjoyed by many of the residents. Activities such as these allowed the children to grow and play as all children should. Francis took part in many activities and was popular with his companions. He was an active child with an interest in wood working, reading, and athletics.
Francis was a member of the track and field team—specifically the four-person, lightweight (junior varsity) relay team—at David Felmley Junior High School, located on the ISSCS campus. In May 1936, the lightweight relay team tied for second place at the State Grade School Track Meet in El Paso, Illinois. They were beat for first place by fellow students at Felmley who were on the heavyweight (varsity) relay team. Both teams broke relay records, with the heavyweights running 410 yards in 50.6 seconds and the lightweights running it in 54 seconds. It must have been an exciting accomplishment for then 14-year-old Francis. The following season, Francis also tried his hand at the pole vault.
Francis also played on the school’s basketball teams, playing forward and center positions over the course of three seasons from 1935 to 1938. ISSCS lost a November 23, 1937 game against Normal Central Junior High (19-15), with their opponents making two baskets in quick succession to break a 15 point deadlock. The next day, the heavyweights lost a home game (20-18), during which Francis scored a basket in the first and third quarters. The ISSCS team also competed against other orphanages. In the January 7, 1938 game against the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, Francis made a basket in the first quarter, contributing to the heavyweight’s 23-20 win. Three days later, the heavyweights beat out Chenoa at a home game for a 28-16 win. Francis scored two baskets each in the second and fourth quarters. When the heavyweights played Normal Central again on January 18, 1938, they beat their rivals 19-17 in double overtime. Felmley lost to Trinity 27-17 at a home game on the evening of January 24, 1938, despite Francis scoring five points. Two months later, Francis played aggressively during a student-versus-faculty game on March 16. The students nearly won, and Francis had the opportunity to win the game with two free throws, but missed them both. Mere seconds later, the faculty team tossed in the winning basket. Francis collected three personal fouls during the first half and scored seven points total.
His athletic ability extended to other activities as well. In March 1938, Francis and H. McKibben won the 8C paddle-tennis division of a tournament put on in gym class. Francis also tried his hand at baseball, playing shortstop in a game against Danvers on May 4 of that year.
Since Francis was so active in sports, he became a member of the most popular club at the ISSCS, the Letterman’s Club. The club was sponsored by Edson “Scotty” White, the athletic director and coach at Felmley Junior High. Francis, because he had double-lettered in track and basketball, was eligible to join. Club members had to earn one or more letters, have passing grades, help protect school property at all times, pay dues of five cents (which would be the equivalent of about $1.00 in 2017), and attend regular club meetings which were held twice a week.
Life at the Home was not all fun and games, however. There were also regular chores and responsibilities, such as farm work. The ISSCS maintained multi-acre garden plots on the east side of the campus (today near Henry Street). These plots were supervised by head farmer, Pearl Peddicord, and labor was provided by the boys. Peddicord had a reputation for physical punishment and often chased after the boys and jabbed at them with a pitchfork. Fellow resident Gino Ullian spent a lot of time working on the farm at the Home. Gino recalled that the boys would pick beans, load them onto a horse-drawn wagon, and bring the load back to the cottage where they proceeded to snap all the beans picked that day. Gino worked with Francis on the farm and recalled the day that Francis took ill. He said Francis complained of stomach pains while working the bean field. However, Peddicord made him continue picking green beans. Unfortunately, Francis collapsed in the field later that same day.
Francis had suffered a “ruptured gangrenous appendix” on July 29, 1938. Dr. Ray W. Doud operated on Francis that same day and took primary responsibility for his care throughout his illness. Major J. Howard Russell, superintendent of the Home at the time, wrote to Francis’s mother, who was still living in Dayton, Ohio, to inform her about her son’s condition.
However, Dr. Doud’s orders were not carried out by the ISSCS doctor, Dr. Klein. In fact, during the five postoperative days, Francis received no sedatives (as ordered by Dr. Doud) because Dr. Klein would not allow it. On August 3, 1938, Dr. Doud asked Mr. A. L. Bowen, of the Welfare Department in Springfield, Illinois, for permission to transfer Francis to Brokaw Hospital “where the orders I write will be carried out, and thereby give the boy the best possible chance for a speedy recovery.” Francis was admitted to Brokaw Hospital the next day.
Francis at first improved, but his condition took a turn for the worse around three o’clock in the afternoon of August 4, 1938. His temperature rose to between 100 and 101 degrees, and he was “very uncomfortable from distention and nausea, the same condition he had suffered before removal to Brokaw Hospital.” Dr. Doud attempted to treat these issues and visited every few hours. Upon the recommendation of Dr. Doud, Francis eventually received the care of a special nurse, whom the ISSCS offered to pay for if the Illinois Department of Public Welfare would not. An urgent telegram was also sent to Francis’s aunt, Mrs. Catherine Byrne, asking her to inform relatives that Francis’s condition was serious.
Sadly, Francis’s condition worsened, and he passed away at 5:30 a.m. on August 5, 1938 at Brokaw Hospital of “peritonitis, following an appendix operation.” Superintendent Russell sent a telegram to Francis’s mother, notifying her that he had passed. He also inquired as to whether or not she would be able to attend the services that were to be held at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 8.
Services were held at the Murray & Carmody Funeral Home, and a requiem high mass was performed by Rev. Fr. S.N. Moore at Holy Trinity Catholic Church (as Francis was a member of the Catholic faith). It is not known if either of his parents attended his funeral. He is buried in the ISSCS plot at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.
For a more in depth examination of the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School, please see A Place We Called Home: A History of Illinois Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home 1864-1931, Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School 1931-1979 by Ruth Cobb, available in the library at the McLean County Museum of History.