Updated: August 17, 2012 7:11AM
Ellen Marie Drake was so excited about the Salvation Army’s new community center on the Far South Side that she started sending people there before it even opened.
As soon as she spotted the construction of the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center — a massive, state-of-the-art sports and recreation facility at 1250 W. 119th St. — Mrs. Drake began calling the office for information and continued to call just about every day until its grand opening in June.
“She said, “I want to come over,” and I said, “We’re not ready yet,” ” said Rose Banks, the community center’s office administrator. “And one day she just came over.”
Banks handed Mrs. Drake a brochure showcasing the center’s plans for an indoor water park, athletic stadiums, theater, dance studios and classrooms, and Mrs. Drake fell in love. Soon enough, people started pouring in.
“I had to call her and ask her to stop sending all these people because I couldn’t give [the brochures] to everybody, and she’d say, “Oh, just give it to them,” Banks said.
A self-appointed ambassador, Mrs. Drake wanted to show off the facility to everybody she knew. Once the center opened, she was there every day.
“That was all she would talk about,” said her daughter, Jacquelyn Caston. “Just to see the children laughing, to see the safe haven in the community, to see that families would have some place to go, she was so excited about it.”
On July 1, shortly after the center’s grand opening, Mrs. Drake died at her South Side home of complications related to a heart attack. She was 79.
“She’s the kind of person you wanted running around because her smile would spread,” said Major David Harvey, senior Kroc Center officer. “And she was always challenging us to do more to get people involved.”
In June, Mrs. Drake was inducted into the City of Chicago’s Senior Citizen Hall of Fame.
A West Woodlawn native, Mrs. Drake was born July 9, 1932. At McCosh Elementary School and Englewood High School, she made lifelong friends.
“There was something so very unique about how my mother grew up,” Caston said. “The community and camaraderie that they have at 80 years old is amazing.”
Mrs. Drake married Darrow S. Drake, who was also from West Woodlawn, when she was 20. The couple had two kids and divorced when Mrs. Drake was around 30.
Mrs. Drake worked as a teacher and guidance counselor for Chicago Public Schools and spent most of her career at Willard Elementary and Dyett Middle schools. A graduate of Chicago Teachers College, Mrs. Drake also earned a master’s degree in 1975 in urban studies from Northeastern Illinois University.
“It seemed like she always was in school,” her daughter said. Through retirement, Mrs. Drake took various seminars, classes and workshops offered at her church, Christ Universal Temple, where she also served as an usher.
A deeply spiritual person, Mrs. Drake started every day with 45 minutes of quiet time reading scriptures.
She finished nearly every day by walking the neighborhood and checking on her elderly neighbors. She was involved in the police department’s community policing program and sat on the board of Marynook Homeowner’s Association.
“She was determined to keep our community alive and keep our community safe,” said Millicent ReChord, a fellow board member of the association. “Everybody knew her and everybody loved her.”
ReChord first met Mrs. Drake years ago on a jazz cruise in the Caribbean. “Quiet, cool wonderful jazz, that’s what she liked,” ReChord said. Mrs. Drake went on multiple jazz cruises and traveled to Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Hong Kong.
In Chicago, Mrs. Drake was an usher and volunteer at the DuSable Museum of African American History. She also loved the Black Ensemble Theater and went to nearly all of its plays.
“She never had down time,” ReChord said. “She was someone who lived every day to the fullest.”
Mrs. Drake was preceded in death by her son, Darrow S. Drake Jr., who died in 2004. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Following her funeral services, a repast was held with more than 250 people at the Kroc Community Center.
“Even in death she brought people to the Kroc Center,” Banks said.