CHICAGO -- Just off South Lake Shore Drive, there's an imposing monument to a famous man whose hand was felt on virtually all the major political issues of his day. The site also serves as a monument to a family whose name isn't at all widely known, whose handiwork shows in an area smaller than a city block.
Stephen A. Douglas, the "Little Giant" of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the senatorial campaign of 1858, was among the most distinguished public men the state of Illinois has produced -- a member of the Illinois General Assembly, a congressman, a U.S. senator.
He was a South Sider, owner of a house and property along 35th Street, and a South Sider he will remain forever.
Douglas is entombed on this property, the site donated by his widow to the state, in a lovely, peaceful setting more people ought to know and visit. Oaks, elms, some crab apples and a big catalpa tree scattered about the 2 1/2-acre grounds shield the spot from traffic on 35th Street and high-rise apartments on two sides. Squirrels and blackbirds are the principal visitors on some fall days.
For that setting, for the clumps of tall variety yellow and orange marigolds, the beds of dusty miller and red salvia, the purplish-blue ageratums along the walkway, the red geraniums around the base of the monument, some other longtime South Siders should be thanked. They are the Herman Williams family.
In 1951, Williams moved into the brick bungalow that, save for the monument itself, was the only structure left on the place. He was hired by the state (the Douglas Monument is a state historic site) to tend the property. There was no grass, no flowers then.
Williams and his wife, Vallie, who died in 1975, brought life to a place of memorial to the dead. They prepared flower beds, set out plants and tended them, sowed grass seed and kept the grass mowed and raked. They made sure there was no vandalism. They urged visitors to remember that this was a place of respect. And they filled the tiny bungalow with seven children.
For the Williams family, the Douglas memorial was their front yard.
"I was 1 when we moved in here," Patrick Williams said. "I started working with my dad in 1970. I'm the only one of the kids who wanted to do this work."
Patrick Williams, having lived on this site for nearly four decades and tended it for two, is the only Williams working there now. He has an 11-year-old who is too young to know if he someday will work on the property. And Williams has hired a young man, Leonard Stovall, to help him. Herman Williams is 77 and in poor health.
The monument itself is 96 feet tall, a granite base topped by a 46-foot column on which stands a 9-foot-9-inch bronze statue of Douglas, nearly double the Little Giant's 5-foot-2 stature in life.
Williams, who says his family "probably is descended from slaves, though we've never really looked into it," said he hasn't been asked about Douglas's stand on slavery, though that may change in the wake of the PBS television series on the Civil War.
Douglas interpreted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as approving of slavery. He stood on pragmatic ground, that the individual states should be allowed to decide if they would be slave or free states. Lincoln made the question a moral one. Douglas won that Senate election, but ultimately was eclipsed by Lincoln.
There is no doubt, though, of Douglas's love for his country. His last words, uttered in answer to the question of whether he had any advice for his sons, were: "Tell my children to obey the laws and uphold the Constitution."
Williams has some advice too: "Water the flowers late in the season. Makes the blooms last."