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Chicago dog parks expert Janis Taylor, who loved ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and lived one, dead at 59

Mourners rang bells at her funeral to mimic the sound of an angel winning his wings. Pet owners would come to her about having the Chicago Park District carve out space for their pooches. 

Janis Taylor worked for 36 years for the Chicago Park District.
Janis Taylor worked for 36 years for the Chicago Park District.
Provided photo

Janis Taylor loved the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” so much that she and her sister would prank each other about it at Christmas, capping their increasingly elaborate gags with a crowing declaration of holiday cheer: “You got ‘Lifed!’ ”

She even named one of her cats George Bailey after the Jimmy Stewart character in the film, who learns from his daughter Zuzu that “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’’

So it was fitting that her friends and relatives made the church echo with 150 handheld silver bells when they gathered for her funeral at St. Juliana’s parish.

After the eulogy, “Everybody rung their bells,” said her friend Julia Bachrach.

“We said, ‘Janis, you got your wings,’ ’’ said her sister Kathy Taylor.

Ms. Taylor, who worked for the Chicago Park District for 36 years and was the chief contact for pet owners wanting to establish dog parks, died in September at 59. She had numerous health problems, including lupus, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome and was on dialysis, awaiting a kidney transplant when she learned she had liver and lung cancer, according to her sister Peggy Grant.

Her ashes were interred in October at Maryhill Cemetery with the cremated remains of her cats George, Austin and Cosmo. Musician David Dunne sang “Blackbird,” one of her favorite Beatles songs.

She grew up on the West Side, one of eight kids. Young Janis attended St. Angela’s School in Austin and Trinity High School in River Forest. Her father James Nolan was a Chicago police officer. Her mother Dorothy would take the kids for daytime rides in their 1963 red Chevrolet Impala station wagon so their dad, who worked nights, could get some sleep.

“We played football in the street and baseball in the alley — you know, the big 16-inch one they call the ‘Clincher,’ ” Grant said.

As a teenager, Ms. Taylor worked as an Andy Frain usher at Maywood racetrack, Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, Arie Crown Theater and the Auditorium Theatre, according to another sister, Joanne Gorecki.

After acing a typing test, she started working for the park district after high school.

Janis Taylor with her nephew David Gorecki.
Janis Taylor with her nephew David Gorecki.
Provided photo

At first, people who didn’t grow up in big West Side Irish families might have been taken aback by her occasional comeback of: “Why you asking me?”

She was “totally take no s---,” Bachrach said.

Then, people would notice her softness.

“She always knew everyone in the park district who was sick, whose mother had died,” said Bachrach, a former parks historian. “When I had breast cancer, even though I was Jewish, she gave me a coin of some saint who would help.”

“I remember her, years ago, being really worried about a co-worker who didn’t come to work, and some other people blew it off,” Grant said. “Janis made the calls and got a welfare check, and it turned out he’d passed away. They found him at his home.”

Ms. Taylor helped organize volunteer Earth Day cleanups for the park district. “Even when she was really sick, she would go on these freezing cold days, do the mulching of the trees,” Bachrach said.

It was a big job, according to Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks. “We often have 100 or so parks where individuals sign up to do that work, from picking up garbage to mulching trees,” said Irizarry, whose organization named Ms. Taylor “Park District Employee of the Year” in 2016 for her work coordinating volunteers.

Ms. Taylor also gave time and money to Northbrook’s Special Gifts Theatre, where kids and adults with special needs participate in the performing arts.

“She would make all their props, spend her last dime,” Bachrach said. “If she thought you were a good person, she would literally go to the ends of the earth to support you.”

Ms. Taylor became a vegetarian around 21, after seeing a report on factory farming. “If it has parents,” she’d say, “don’t put it on my plate.”

Janis Taylor and her great-niece Kyleigh.
Janis Taylor and her great-niece Kyleigh.
Provided photo

Though she loved “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Ms. Taylor grew tired of seeing it on TV all the time after its copyright expired in the mid-1970s. Until the copyright was restored about 20 years later, during the holidays, “Every station in the city, it was always on,” Grant said.

One day, Ms. Taylor said, “Oh, can we watch something else?” That’s when she and Grant started what became 45 years of “Wonderful Life” gags. Grant lived in Ohio, so she said, “A lot of the ‘Life-ing’ was 400 miles apart.”

There were “Wonderful Life” T-shirts, blankets and singing telegrams with George Bailey lookalikes belting out “Buffalo Gals (Won’t You Come Out Tonight).”

Ms. Taylor gave Grant a clock on which she’d replaced the numerals with the faces of actors from the movie.

She inserted miniature “Life” characters into a Bailey’s Irish Cream bottle, like putting together a ship in a bottle, and presented it to Grant.

Then, there was the VHS tape she doctored. When Ms. Taylor met actress Karolyn Grimes, who’d played Zuzu in the movie, she spliced her into the tape and gave it to her sister.

“She was able to get her to look into the camera,” Grant said, “and say, ‘It’s a wonderful life, Peggy — you’ve just been ‘Lifed!’ ”

For the last half of her career, Ms. Taylor worked with communities on creating and improving dog parks, said Bob Megquier, executive vice president of the conservation group Openlands, a former park district staffer. She coached them on requirements for water sources, shade and gates.

“She was the best thing that happened to them and responded to the needs of everyone,” said Steve Dale, a certified animal behavior consultant who hosts a show about pets on WGN-AM. “She would work miracles. She was the best advocate I know of dog parks in Chicago.”

“She was involved, compassionate, listened, tried to incorporate community’s ideas and wishes,” Megquier said. “There’s no doubt the park district is better because of her.”

Ms. Taylor is also survived by her sisters Deborah Rose, Barbara Becker and Julie Taylor, brother Kevin, and 15 nieces and nephews and 11 great-nieces and great-nephews.

At her funeral — where her family and friends wore purple to represent her love of Prince — “The bells symbolized all the lives she touched,” Peggy Grant said.

Janis Taylor with great-niece Kyleigh at one of her favorite seasons, Christmas.
Janis Taylor with great-niece Kyleigh at one of her favorite seasons, Christmas.
Provided photo