Before the Bohemians of Little Village migrated west to what John Budilovsky called the “bramborova slechta” — the “potato aristocracy” strongholds of Cicero, Berwyn and Riverside — there were at least 27 Bohemian funeral directors in Chicago.
Budilovsky, a mortician, was one of the liveliest dancers at the Undertakers’ Balls organized by the Bohemian Funeral Directors’ Association. His moves gained him entry to the prestigious 400 Club at the Aragon Ballroom in Uptown and the Trianon in Woodlawn. Those star dancers received free admission in exchange for dispensing dance lessons.
At the Trianon in 1948, a graceful woman caught his eye: Leona “Lee” Turlo, a fellow member of the 400 Club. He invited her to a Halloween party. When he had to cut the date short — to pick up a body — she didn’t mind. He was impressed.
After they got married, she became the make-up artist for the bodies at the Budilovsky Funeral Home at 2611 S. Lawndale. They built up the business, moving it to Westchester in 1957 and renaming it the Budilovsky Westchester Funeral Home.
Mrs. Budilovsky, 94, died June 2 at the Delnor Glen, an assisted-living center in St. Charles. Services were held at the site of the funeral home that she and her late husband of 59 years founded, which is now the Conboy Westchester Funeral Home.
Young Lee grew up in the 2200 block of North Magnolia, the daughter of Polish immigrants. Her father, Ludwik, “kept rabbits during the Depression so we were sure to have meat to eat on Sundays,” she said in her memoir, the self-published “Lady Lee.” Her brothers deduced that a rabbit’s disappearance coincided with meat on the table, and the kids refused to eat it.
“Understanding how traumatic this was for my little brothers, my father only sold the rabbits to other families after that and used the money to buy food for our family,” she said.
She and her siblings spoke Polish at home because their mother, Helena, “thought that if we were proficient in the language of her country, we would never lose our past,” she wrote.
She went to Waller High School and worked as a billing clerk for Montgomery Ward.
To a generation bruised by the Depression and World War II, the elegant Aragon and Trianon were Shangri-Las of romance. On the night she met her future husband at the Trianon, “Something wonderful happened to me,” she wrote.
They got married in 1950, and she moved into the Pilsen funeral home where her husband was living with his mother.
By 1957, so many customers had cars that it became difficult to find parking around 26th and Lawndale. So they moved the business to Westchester, where other Bohemians were migrating.
The family lived in an apartment above the funeral home. He did the embalming. Mrs. Budilovsky, gifted at cosmetics, prepared the bodies for viewing.
Working from photographs of the deceased, “She took care of the hair and make-up,” said her daughter, Joan, adding that, at first, her mother “was terrified of dead bodies.”
In her memoir, Mrs. Budilovsky wrote: “I had always been afraid of the dead, but I knew I had to get over that fear if I were to continue seeing Johnny.”
She made delicious Swedish meatballs, pierogi and chicken paprikash and taught her children to choose their words carefully because unkindness is long remembered.
At 68 — after her 72-year-old husband was injured while riding his motorcycle — she learned to drive.
After selling the funeral home in the 1970s, the Budilovskys were able to go on the vacations they couldn’t take while running a family business, visiting Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Florida and Niagara Falls.
Mrs. Budilovsky is also survived by another daughter, Jane A. Zeck; two brothers, John and Louis Turlo; four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her husband and her son, John, died before her, as did a brother, Ed Turlo.
She was laid to rest in Bohemian National Cemetery next to her husband, among the graves of many customers from their funeral home.
LEE BUDILOVSKY’S FAMOUS CHEESECAKE COOKIES
This was one of Lee Budilovsky’s family’s favorite recipes of hers.
⅔ cup brown sugar
⅔ cup butter (softened)
2 cups flour
1 cup walnuts
Cream butter and sugar until fluffy.
Add flour and nuts and mix until crumbly.
Reserve 1 cup of mixture. Press remainder into bottom of 9”-by-13” pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.
¾ cup sugar
3 8-oz. packages cream cheese
6 tbsps. milk
1½ tbsps. vanilla
3 tbsps. lemon juice
Blend sugar and cream cheese until smooth.
Add eggs, milk, vanilla and lemon juice. Beat well.
Spread over baked crust.
Sprinkle reserved crust mixture over top.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Cool, cut and refrigerate.