Chatfield woman discovers more family connections to ‘Radium Girls’

Mary Bailey's mother, Lena LaValle, is listed on the Schomas family tree. Bailey recently met a Schomas cousin while researching connections to the men and women in the book "Radium Girls."
By : 

The legacy has a ghoulish glow, but in it, Mary Bailey has found some light.

“The only explanation is that these people were evil and had no souls,” stated rural Chatfield resident Mary Bailey, turning a page of the book “Radium Girls,” a book she and her husband, Bill, had read for their book club about girls who literally glowed in the dark and suffered leukemia and other forms of cancer from working in factories that produced luminous dial parts for instruments and clocks.

The girls were exposed to radiation as they painted radium onto the dials, losing their youth even as they made money to buy dresses and to raise their social standing in post-World War I society.

“Bill and I came to the conclusion when we first started reading that people in this world are evil and have no souls…when we first started reading, we thought of those girls, so young and pretty,” Mary said. “They were so excited to have gotten their first job, but the factory owners were killing them.”

The book, by Kate Moore, outlined how radium offered them the means by which they were able to move upward, but also how it took their lives.

Mary pointed out, “They were told not to go back to work, but they weren’t sure they were sick, and they did go because they wanted fancy dresses.”

The Baileys took up reading “Radium Girls” because of the riveting story of the young ladies, but what they learned about humanity was that there are indeed people who may not have souls, such as the factory owners of Radium Dial, a company stationed in Ottawa, Ill. The Baileys also learned how the mettle and courage of the families and workers themselves could withstand being tested in order to save their daughters, sisters, wives or themselves.

Then, as reported earlier this year, came the point in which Mary revealed she had discovered her uncle Jack White was named in the book, as was his wife, Catherine Looney, and her sister, Peg Looney.

“My mother grew up on Paul Street and my dad on Nebraska Street in Ottawa,” she shared. “My uncle Jack was born in 1906, and my father was born in 1913. My father was his youngest brother, and I’m my father’s youngest child. I was reading the book, and I read about Jack White…when my father got married, Jack was his best man. Ottawa was a community like Chatfield in that everybody knew everybody else and everybody married everybody else. My uncle Jack White married Catherine Looney, and they had a daughter, Peggy Jean, who danced with the Radio City Rockettes. My father was godfather to Peggy Jean.”

Indiana native Mary White Suttinger Bailey — first married to Leonard Suttinger, who passed away shortly after the couple moved to Chatfield from Indiana — had visited a relative along the way during her travels back to Indiana and begun chatting about local history as related to the “Radium Girls” book she’d been reading.

“I went to Indiana, and I asked my cousin’s widow, Pat, if she knew about ‘Radium Girls,’ and she said that she hadn’t read it but my cousins went to St. Francis Church and named names of people who lived around the factory,” Mary recalled. “She said that when they disbanded the factory, they gave the desks and tables to St. Francis Church, and the building was demolished. When the building was demolished, it was spread across a field that’s now a parking lot, and everybody who lived around it suffered from cancer. She named names of people who had had leukemia or colon cancer.”

 Mary added that she had been reading the book for a while, and started snooping in the pictures, and there was one that said Peg Looney. “I can’t tell you how astounded I was,” Mary said. “I suspected, with the last name ‘Looney,’ that it might be, but there was my uncle Jack’s name. He died of cancer in 1986. There were other names that came up…Tenelli, Marie Rossiter. I am sure that my aunt Etta and my mother knew Marie. Pat said that her friends told her that the best thing she ever did was not grow up in Ottawa.”   

Mary described her uncle’s demeanor, remarking his defense of his deceased family members who had worked at Radium Dial was rather out of character — not the fact that he defended them, but that he spoke up when the Radium Dial company representatives came to act as undertaker as a means of bypassing the requirements that would have revealed that the radium was deadly.

“Jack was not a belligerent man by any means…he was mild as a toddler. Everybody loved Jack, so this was a little bit out of character…when the company men came in the middle of the night to take her body, Jack protested. He said, ‘No, you’re not taking her. She was a good Catholic girl and she’s going to have a Mass.’ The company men tried to argue with him because they wanted the whole thing gone. These girls were reviled because they were hurting local business when they got sick and got lawyers to fight for them.” Mary observed, “The other thing that impressed me was that Frances Perkins started OSHA in defense of the girls.”

Mary Bailey counts herself fortunate to not have grown up in Ottawa and learned firsthand how radium’s seemingly multipurpose uses affected the people of the city.

“My mother’s family stayed in Chicago, and my father’s family went to Aurora. In the epilogue, one of the dump sites was built on…and there was the suffering of the girls and the people who lived around the demolished factory building.”

But most recently, Mary has gained more family through having read “Radium Girls,” as interactions with the author and a few individuals whose names she had gained as she researched the story further.

“I closed by asking if one of them would like to give me her contact information, and Darlene…it turned out that her aunt would have been my aunt Catherine Looney, who was married to my uncle Jack. Schomas is my maternal grandmother’s name, and I emailed back and said that we could be related,” Mary said.

So, Mary agreed to meet Darlene at a restaurant, and she drove her around town to the site of Radium Dial — which is now a parking lot. The city is in the midst of voting to allow a Subway restaurant to be built there.

“I said, ‘That’s sacrilegious — they should have a monument.’ Darlene said, ‘We do have a plaque and a sculpture because one girl was so touched that she had her father, a sculptor, make a monument,’” Mary shared. “Darlene did take me around to show me the sites that I knew as a child, where my aunt and grandmas lived and where my mother grew up.”

As the pair parted ways, Mary showed Darlene something that cemented the facts of their relationship. “I had an extra copy of the Schomas family tree, and I got it out of my car and got into her car and showed it to her, and she said she’d seen this document before,” Mary said. “My hair stood on end. Lena Schomas Lavelle…she found her grandfather on there, and my mother and her grandfather were cousins, and our grandparents were related on my mother’s side, and she and I are related through marriage on the other side.”

Mary also added she would spend a few weeks in the summer with her Aunt Etta and Uncle Francis and her grandma Helen. “Darlene or Kate told me that they took Peg Looney’s body to the lab and that her body came back in a lead box, and Marie Rossiter was a survivor…her name was spoken by my mother and Aunt Etta,” Mary recalled.

She concluded, “This book, for me, was a dichotomy of wickedness and the depth of people’s love. One man bankrupted himself, and his father did the same just to keep a girl alive. If I hadn’t known the book existed, the fact that my uncle was in it could still be hiding. And when I go back to visit friends in Ottawa, it’s always emotional, but this is a punch – it gave me so much to think about.”

Gathering facts was exciting, as was learning more about the people to whom Bailey is related, but she maintains that the Superfund site that may soon be home to a Subway sandwich shop should not be what it is about to become.

“It’s not hallowed, but it should be,” Mary said. “I would think that even if there weren’t a family connection through this book, I would think that these girls are owed a lot.”