South Side widow donates $70K to St. Rita after husband, daughter die
Over a 42-year career, Florian Dodge taught 10,000 low- and middle-income students at St. Rita High School on Chicago’s South Side, placing many of them in vocations and jobs they held on to for life. This past spring, it all came crashing down when Flory suddenly tested positive and died of COVID-19. Several days later, Flory and Bernice Dodge’s only daughter, Sandy O’Malley, also tested positive and died of COVID-19. The extended family is shaken at its core. But Bernice Dodge is a strong 89-year-old woman. As now-matriarch of the family, she decided it is time to make a statement. She is donating $70,000 to St. Rita to be used for financial aid so South Side families struggling with the economic impact of COVID-19 in a world of racial injustice can continue to send their sons to a high school that prides itself on living the American dream. Flory was born to Polish immigrants in the back of Chicago’s Stock Yards in an era when stickball was played in the streets, soccer was king and ethnic slurs were common language. After graduating from Kelly High School toward the end of World War II, he entered the Navy and served on a small boat that traveled up China’s Yangtze River, liberating small towns from the scourge of Japanese rule and helping then rebuild their fragile economies. When he returned home, Flory lived the American dream. He worked his way through college, entered a “mixed” marriage with Bernice (she was Lithuanian; he was not), and raised a family of three children. But the Chicago South Side version of the American dream in the 1950s and 1960s meant navigating the racial tension of white Block Clubs that kept African American families from buying homes and anxiously watching the Marquette Park headquarters of the American Nazi Party hold hateful rallies. It also meant working three jobs to make ends meet. Flory would wake up each morning before his children, go to teach school and come home at 3:30 p.m. so that Bernice could feed him a hot meal before he rushed to the 4 p.m. shift at the Ford Motor plant, where he worked as an unlicensed engineer. He would come home after midnight, grab some sleep and wake up the next morning to do it all over again. Weekends? Flory sold real estate, sitting for open houses trying to sell starter homes on 40-foot lots that he and Bernice could not afford themselves. Occasionally, he brought his children with him to give Bernice a break, teaching them arithmetic by reviewing the baseball box scores in the Sunday newspaper. The kids knew they had the best parents in the world. Eventually, the Dodge family bought one of those starter homes. To stay afloat, Flory began yet a fourth job as an insurance salesman. He concocted the idea that he could sell automobile and homeowners insurance to former students who revered him. Flory taught the “Voc-Ed” students wood shop and mechanical drawing. They were not college bound, and so he got them jobs at factories and plants all over the South Side. Their challenges became his challenges, and so he helped them buy a car or rent an apartment. He fronted them cash for their insurance premiums, and they became devoted to him. He convinced the principal at St. Rita to let him install a telephone in the back of the classroom so he could run his little business while teaching 48 students the intricacies of making a blueprint. Bernice stayed home, raised the kids, managed the household and helped the children take one step further in the American dream, Chicago-style. How so? Though she was super smart, Bernice never completed college because she married Flory and had three kids. Her daughter Sandy went a step further by graduating from college with a degree in elementary education and raising six kids. Sandy did it as a single mother after her husband, Jack, died suddenly of a heart attack at the breakfast table when the kids were young. Flory was a high school teacher, and so son Ken became a college teacher. Flory was expert in math and design but without more than a bachelor’s degree, and so son Bob earned a master’s degree in structural engineering and had an illustrious career designing bridges over roads and working on grand projects like a new runway at O’Hare Field. The kids grew up and blessed Flory and Bernice with 11 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. Flory and Bernice were an American love story well into their autumn years. On April 16, Flory woke up with a fever and slight cough. It was probably nothing, but Bernice got daughter-in-law Alice to drive them to a curbside COVID-19 testing place, just to be sure. Flory went inside while Alice, Bernice and their sainted home health care worker, Marisel, waited in the car. Thirty minutes later, a nurse walked outside, looked Bernice in the eye and said Flory had tested positive for COVID and was being taken by ambulance to the hospital. Bernice never saw Flory again in person, never hugged him goodbye. Flory never got to say, “Love you” one last time, to the love of his life. He died eight days later. Bernice buried him with only six family members present graveside. In 70 years, Bernice had never woken up without Flory at her side. The next morning, she woke up instead with a fever and cough. But she could not afford to be sick, so she refused testing. Days later, daughter Sandy became sick, tested positive and was rushed to the hospital. Sandy died on May 2. Grief-stricken, wobbling, and without direction, Bernice once again attended a graveside service, staring at a casket and an empty hole, with almost no one present. Now what? The world is coming apart. COVID fear-mongers and COVID-flaunters are fighting each other, mimicking presidential election pettiness. Publicized cases of police brutality are exposing a reality everyone knew had long existed but wanted to deny. Protests and riots reminded Bernice of the late 1960s, when Mayor Richard J. Daley shockingly called upon the Chicago police to “shoot to kill” arsonists and “shoot to maim” looters. Did that really happen? What is real and what is fiction? Was Flory’s World War II heroism real? Did U.S. Navy PT boats actually travel deep into the middle of China to save Chinese families? In a reality check, Flory’s surviving kids looked it up. There it was: As World War II ended, the Navy’s Yangtze Patrol freed towns from Shanghai on the ocean all the way inland to a small village named Wuhan. Wuhan might not exist today but for the efforts of the United States Navy. Back to home. Flory’s beloved St. Rita High School, still serving a mix of white-European, Black and Latinx kids from all over the South Side, declared its goal to continue forward, but so many families have lost jobs and struggle to pay its tuition that its future is at risk. So Bernice no longer wobbled. In a declaration of how she wants her children and her community to stand up at this historical moment, she decided to take her modest savings and honor Flory by donating to a financial aid fund for South Side kids. “Love you.”
Florian and Bernice Dodge with their extended family. Front row, from left: son Ken Dodge, son Robert Dodge, Bernice Dodge, Flory Dodge, daughter Sandy O’Malley, granddaughter Kimberly O’Malley and granddaughterin-law Sarah Dodge. Second row: Zoe Dodge, Claudia Jones, Angela Labanca, Alice Dodge, Colleen Hackley, Stacy Dodge, Brian Cicero, Tom O’Malley, Jim O’Malley, Heather O’Malley, Tammy O-Malley. Top row: Nick Labanca, Andrew Hackley, Kyle Dodge, Michael O’Malley, Kevin O’Malley, Johnny O’Malley, Kim Dahlberg O’Malley.