Remembering Wicker Park's Geraldine (Gerri) Baginski

Date: 
06/06/2020
GeriBaginskiSitting

A devout Catholic and Polish-American Chicagoan through and through, Geraldine "Gerri"* Baginski lost her life where she lived 70 of her 77 years in the 2100 block of W. Potomac Ave. 

The interior of the coach house where she lived, located in Chicago's Wicker Park Historic Landmark District, became consumed in flames around 2:15 a.m. on May 23, Memorial Day weekend. Just a few hours earlier, she and her sister Gloria Derengowski ended one of their daily conversations. 

As family, friends and neighbors turned to each other in disbelief later that day, many layers of her life began to be revealed, remembered and shared. 

Characterized by people of all ages in the multi-layers of her life, they said she:

  • had a deep faith
  • had a broad range of interests
  • had a fearless outspokenness
  • had concerns for community 

And she was:

  • Courageous
  • Curious
  • Kind
  • Supportive
  • Interesting
  • Tenacious 

Her span of interests and involvement included religion, health, historic preservation, education, the arts, film, traveling, bingo, dancing and community. 

Early Life
The Baginski family moved from Hermitage to Potomac when Gerri was six or seven, says her sister Gloria.  

Gerri and Gloria attended St. Helen's school, 2347 W Augusta Blvd., followed by the former Holy Family Academy, before going to college. Gerri went on to DePaul obtaining her teaching degree. 

She lived there with her mother until her death on Memorial Day weekend in 1988. 

Over the years there were occasionally tenants in the buildings and she worked on updating the two buildings. 

5-GBaginskiStrAntonia

At a Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center Health fair, Gerri talks with Sister Antonia

Faith Community
St. Helen Catholic Parish, 2315 W. Augusta Blvd., has been the cornerstone of her life. In turn, she was important to the congregation and clergy. As the parish's Father Edward Cronin put it, "If one-third my parishioners had her faith, there would be nothing the church couldn't do. 

"She was one of our greatest lectors…she beamed each time she gave a reading. She was also an active member of our seniors group. But she always said, 'they are not seniors, they are Golden Agers.'" 

"Gerri went beyond our St. Helen Parish. We would go to other churches in other parts of the City for events, prayer groups and adult faith formation luncheons," says Mary Beth Cieslica a St. Helen's parishioner and friend. 

"She had an unwavering faith in God and she loved to have fun. For example, when it was time to shut down our annual carnival, a small group of us 'old timers' would sit down and drain what was left in the beer barrels, chatting and laughing for hours." 

Education Community
Many people are remembering their experiences with Gerri in and around her career years. They often comment that despite her retirement she kept up with and had strong feelings about education, teachers, the union, students and parents. 

She began her Spanish and French teaching career in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) at William H. Wells High School, 936 N. Ashland Ave., and went on to Carl Schurz High School, 3601 N Milwaukee Ave., for the rest of her CPS career. 

In 1985 to 87, Gerri taught Spanish and was Chair of the Foreign Language Department at Schurz. Carol Sommers, also a Wicker Park resident, started teaching French at Schurz. "Imagine my surprise to find out that we were Wicker Park neighbors! 

"We were good friends beside being coworkers and talked and laughed a lot together. My husband and son would even walk her dog when she was on vacation."

"She was wonderful. I ran into her a few years ago at a Schurz event. She looked great. I told her that I was sorry for not paying more attention in her class and wished I would have learned the Spanish language," says John Karnuth. 

"Señorita Baginski! The only name we were allowed to call her," says former student Martiza Meeks. "She was a diligent and passionate educator!" 

At one of the 14th District CPD creative cafes that brought the community and police districts together to determine the year's strategies, one of the officers looked and Gerri and said, "You were my teacher and other members of my family!"

Gerri looked at him and then started talking to him about those days.

Another former student, Lilly Beltran, said that "She would annunciate/express the Spanish language by stomping her feet to have us feel the pronunciation of words!" 

While many colleagues have expressed different views of Gerri, Lynne Fitzgerald shares a fun story, that many will say, "That's Gerri!" 

Fitzgerald and Baginski, who knew each other from City College days, socialized in many different events. Dancing, however, was a passion they shared and the Limelight nightclub, Dearborn and Ontario, was one of their favorite spots. 

At 3 a.m., after dancing the night away, they walked out of the club only to find that Lynne's car was gone! So, they started walking home. A van pulled up and a middle aged man said, "Miss Baginski, what are you doing?" 

In her factual instructional voice, she informed him they were walking home because their car had been stolen. A former student of hers, he drove them home. 

Other comments may be seen here and hopefully more below. 

Health Community
Being physically active and going to health related events was another one of the layers of Gerri's life. 

The manager at a health club she went to starting in 2003, Larry King-Duncan says that she "welcomed our older members into various fitness classes. Her friend circle was deep and full of laughter." 

She was often at health events at AMITA Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center, 2233 W. Division St., but more currently went to a program at Rush Hospital. There she met Jo Troncozo, who lives in Chicago but near Whiting, IN. "She was so easy to talk with, sincere and good hearted. and we trusted each other. We were both former teachers. We had similar back grounds and felt strongly about issues like immigration. I can't believe she is gone." 

ETGBatWrkshop

Gerri participating at a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) workshop in 2013

Wicker Park Community
As a preservationist, she was concerned about her neighborhood maintaining its historic look and feel. She lamented about how many new residents were not engaged in community. But she kept asking hard questions be it of a developer, a police officer, a public official or Wicker Park Committee (WPC) officers or committees. 

"She carried around articles in her purse and would pull them out and give them to you to read like she did," said Pat Linnerud a longtime Wicker Park resident and former WPC Board secretary. "Nothing ever stopped her, she just kept going." 

There are few of us still in the neighborhood who participated in getting the Wicker Park community designated as an historic district. Gerri was one to never give up on her assigned streets in the late 1970s. Going building by building an inventory of the properties in Wicker Park was created to first obtain the status as being listed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1979 and then a Chicago Landmark District in 1991. 

During the three terms that I served as WPC President, it was so terrific to know that if Gerri said she would do something, it got done. Over the years since then she has supported other presidents. 

"Geri was an inspiration for community involvement. She cared about the fabric of our neighborhood and history. She was full of life and will be missed around Wicker Park," said former WPC President Leah Root. 

Current WPC President Kyle Sneed says, "Geri always offered her help and was encouraging of my work as WPC President. As someone who didn't grow up in the neighborhood, she gave me confidence and historical context that has allowed me to be a better community leader."  

"She was a neighborhood legend," says Mary Tamminga who also lived across the alley from Gerri for 20 years. "She helped clean-up the neighborhood and was committed to the long-term well-being of the neighborhood and residents." 

Having a difficult time realizing Gerri's loss is long-time friend Alfred Mojica who was always ready to go on adventures with Gerri. "We would go door to door leafleting during campaigns, getting out the vote at elections, going to parties all over and visiting other friends. She loved going to movies…foreign ones at the Gene Siskel Center. 

"When Around the Coyote art fair was going, we would do that. I also helped her with her yard sales. We always checked in on each other at least once a week. Sometimes we'd just say, 'Hi, how are you?' Other times we'd talk longer. 

"She was always polite and caring."

BaginPfng

At a meeting about the bad service from the U.S Post Office in zip code 60622, Gerri confers with Stacey Pfingsten who at the time worked for 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti in 2014

Public Officials
Gerri generally attended the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategies (CAPS) meetings and asked probing questions of 14th District Officers. 

Lieutenant Joseph (Joe) Giambrone started in the District as a Beat Cop several years ago in Wicker Park. He went on to be Sergeant and now Lieutenant and was often being "fired" at by Gerri's questioning. Sorry to hear about her passing, he said he will always remember her "multi-layered questioning." 

Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward Alderman, in whose ward Geri lived before the last redistricting, says, "It is a sad loss for the community. Gerri often attended community meetings and office events to express her views. She would bring me news clippings and information about all sorts of policies and ideas for her neighborhood and city. She was pretty tenacious at meetings and always made sure her voice was heard." 

Her current alderman, Brian Hopkins, 2nd Ward, says, "We loved her in the 2nd ward office. I met her while I was campaigning. To have someone with her knowledge and her memory and experience in the neighborhood, we looked forward to her calls to tell us what was on her mind. As you know, she was always willing to share her opinions." 

Roberto Lopez, who has been photographing the area since the 1960s has been working with Gerri to do a book with her experiences in the neighborhood. On the WPC Zoom June meeting, he was very emotional about how this will now not be a reality and how he has lost a friend. 

Alma Wieser, Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave., was on that meeting too and regrets not having more time to get to know her. 

To recap in a quick summary of Geraldine "Gerri" Baginski and her multi-layered life... she was short in stature but she was a force to be dealt with on issues and situations near and dear to her heart.

She could be firm while being kind when expressing her opinion or grilling a fellow worker, neighbor, friend, alderman, police officer or other city official. 

Her love of travel took her around the world and her love of God and passion for her neighborhood kept her grounded in Wicker Park. She was stylish and healthy, loved to dance, play bingo and have fun with friends.

She contributed much to our Wicker Park community and is a part of its rich fabric. She will be missed but not forgotten. 

Family
The shock of this tragedy has made it difficult for Gloria, a retired nurse, to be able to talk about her life with her beloved sister and best friend. 

Thus, the family wants to share a story about Gerri recently participating in then 12-month-old Hudson's first birthday party. 

Gerri had bought the baby a smart phone (a toy) and a toy dog that walked and barked. 

"She was so excited that she was on the floor playing with him," explains Hudson's mom Jennifer. "It was so adorable to see her inner child. Neither she nor Hudson had a care in the world."

Services
While a mass and graveside burial will be private, there will be an opportunity to pay respects on Mon., June 8, from 9 a.m. to noon at St. Helen Catholic Church, 2315 W. Augusta Blvd. (at N. Oakley Blvd.) 

Geraldine Baginski was the daughter of the late Walter and Helen Baginski. She leaves behind her sister Gloria (the late Ron) Derengowski; nephew Ronald (Jennifer) Derengowski; newphew Michael (Kristina) Derengowski; and great nephew Hudson.

*Despite her forthright manner for most things, her death has spotlighted how the spelling of her nickname may have changed over time. Is it Geri or is it Gerri?

While some remember evidence that it was written with one "r," others have proof of two!

Her nephew Ron Derengowski laughed when asked the question, saying that he often got cards signed "Gerri," though family members often used "Geri."

Since she directed me to use "Gerri" starting in at least 2012, I honor that request.

 Lead photo courtesy of Mary Beth Cieslica

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Comments

Will the fire and cause be

Will the fire and cause be further investigated?

Investigation

Yes, it was not available Friday but I will continue checking until it is released.

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