Tennessean Mai Blakley made new life in Chicago with Western Electric

SHARE Tennessean Mai Blakley made new life in Chicago with Western Electric
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Mai Blakley with her son, CBS 2 political reporter Derrick Blakley. | Provided photo

With a closet full of custom-made dresses and fashionable hats and shoes, Mai Blakley looked her very best, whether she was off to work at Western Electric or volunteering at church.

Her appearance wasn’t the only thing that was extravagant, said her son, CBS 2 political reporter Derrick Blakley. Her cooking was exquisite and her home was immaculate, he said.

“She was someone who had a great deal of elegance and charm in everything she did,” he said.

He remembers their home being filled with the aroma of soul food and German chocolate pies, when he was a boy.

Mai Blakley moved to Chicago from Huntingdon, Tennessee, for a better life. She worked at Western Electric for 30 years. | Provided photo

Mai Blakley moved to Chicago from Huntingdon, Tennessee, for a better life. She worked at Western Electric for 30 years. | Provided photo

“We never had beans and franks or TV dinners or fish sticks,” he said. “We had Sunday dinners every night. My friends were always jealous.”

Mrs. Blakley would work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., return home, and have a full dinner on the table by 6 o’clock. “She was a Southern woman and food is very important in the Southern home,” her son said. “The central part of her life was her family and home life.”

On weekends, she filled the kitchen with fried doughnuts and coffee cakes. “There was nothing she couldn’t bake,” he said.

She died on Nov. 21 of lung cancer at her Evanston home. Mrs. Blakley was 93.

Beneath her charming exterior was a tough woman who had lived through the segregated South and built a new life in Chicago. “She was strong-willed and very determined,” her son said.

Mrs. Blakley was born in the small town of Huntingdon, Tennessee. Her parents, Joe and Odie McDonald, bought half an acre of land and built a tin-roof home where young Mai grew up with her three sisters. The family raised chickens and hogs while Odie McDonald worked for a railroad.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Mrs. Blakley and her sisters raised enough money to install indoor plumbing at their parents’ home.

After graduating from a segregated high school in McKenzie, Tennessee, she worked in a factory manufacturing artillery shells used in World War II.

At 21, she moved to Chicago.

Her son once asked why she left. He said his mother looked at him “like it was the craziest question.” Her answer was delivered with emphasis.

“Because,” she said, “I never wanted to pick cotton again.”

Mrs. Blakley wanted to work at Western Electric in Cicero. She dressed in her best clothes and took the streetcar to the company, only to be told there were no openings.

She returned to the office every day that week.

The bosses noticed. Mrs. Blakley landed a job and wound up working for the manufacturing company for more than 30 years.

Mai Blakley with her husband of 60 years, Wilbert Blakley. | Provided Photo

Mai Blakley with her husband of 60 years, Wilbert Blakley. | Provided Photo

She met her future husband in Western Electric’s cafeteria. She and Wilbert Blakley were married almost 60 years when he died in 2008.

The couple enjoyed Chicago nightlife, and Wilbert Blakley liked fine clothes as much as his wife did. Later in life, the pair developed a love for travel and shopping abroad.

They first traveled overseas together in 1985 to visit their grandchild, born to Derrick Blakley while he was living in London.

“I remember my parents coming off the plane like Hollywood stars emerging off an ocean liner,” he said, recalling his father in a sharp suit and his mother in a mink coat. His parents adored European fashion.

“I don’t think there was anything left in their sizes after their shopping sprees,” he said.

The following year, they visited him in Germany. They also fulfilled her wish to see Paris, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

“For someone who was born in the segregated South, the sweep of her life was quite incredible,” her son said.

In April, at 92, Mrs. Blakley passed her driver’s exam. Until June, she lived on her own in an Evanston condo near Derrick and her other son, Addrell.

“She was extremely independent and she was one of the most self-sufficient people I’ve ever met,” Derrick Blakley said.

Mrs. Blakley is also survived by a grandson. Visitation is planned at 10 a.m. Dec. 2, with a funeral service beginning at 11 a.m., at St. Mark Lutheran Church, 655 E. 88th St. Burial is to follow at Oak Woods Cemetery.

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