After she was widowed at 49, Eileen M. Byrne worked two jobs for 15 years to care for her five children.
“She worked two full-time jobs but never missed an important meeting” involving her kids, said her daughter, also named Eileen Byrne. “She worked in public schools all day, [would] come home and make dinner, then she worked from 11 to 7 overnight at various nursing homes. Then, in the morning, went to the Board [of Education] again. She never slept, except, like, catnaps – for 15 years.”
When the kids wanted a pool table, the only room big enough to accommodate one was her bedroom. So, her son Thomas said, “She gave up her bedroom. She slept on the couch, so it [the pool table] would keep her kids at home more.”
After her children were grown, Mrs. Byrne continued working as a nurse in Chicago’s schools until she hit mandatory retirement at 70. Then she went to work as a day-care center nurse and also was called back as a nursing consultant for the Chicago schools, where she continued to work until she was 92.
Mrs. Byrne, who tended the injured from D-Day as a nurse with the U.S. Army, was buried in January in Hartford, Wis., which was her father’s hometown. She lived to be 97.
Her nursing career helped her see the world, not to mention the worst and best in people. In France, she witnessed the administration of a shot to Gen. George S. Patton in a rather undignified inoculation site. In London, she slept in the “Tube” to avoid German bombing during the Blitz.
She traveled by landing barge from England to Utah Beach to care for the Allied soldiers and POWs who survived the Normandy invasion. And when she saw a German soldier with severe burns being ignored by an American doctor, she pulled rank.
“She said, ‘I don’t care who you are, I’m a first lieutenant,’ and she took over his medical care,” her son said.
Mrs. Byrne grew up Eileen O’Connell on the West Side, where she attended St. Lucy grade school and Austin High School. She studied at St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing.
Between 1935 and 1940, “She would work in the psychiatric hospitals with some of the most violent patients and just knew how to calm them down,” her daughter said.
When the war broke out, she signed up to serve as an Army nurse. She and other medical personnel were temporarily billeted at the grand Vernon estate known as Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, England. Final training for the combat zone was in Llandudno, Wales.
Security regulations meant she couldn’t tell her father where she was. But their shared love of poetry enabled her to send him a coded message, of sorts.
In a letter home, she quoted the William Wordsworth poem “We Are Seven” about the children buried in a Welsh churchyard.
After tending to those injured on D-Day, her unit made its way toward Paris, where they took over a Luftwaffe hospital that had been abandoned by retreating Germans – but only after they destroyed almost everything left behind.
In France, “She saw [French General] Charles de Gaulle,” her son said. “He was a very big man.”
She watched celebrities including Duke Ellington, Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Cagney entertain the troops.
At a French shrine, she left a petition. “She asked for a good Catholic husband,” her daughter said.
She met Charles Byrne on a blind date after returning to Chicago. They wed in 1948 and raised their family in Edgebrook on the North Side.
She completed a bachelor’s degree at DePaul University and worked as a teacher and nurse in Chicago’s schools.
“She could pick up on kids who were hard of hearing, kids who had heart murmurs,” her son said. “She went to my uncles, who were dentists, to do free work” on the students, “wherever she could get free help for anybody, because she knew disabilities were a huge impediment.”
After reaching mandatory retirement age, she worked at a day-care center and Kid Care in Niles before being called back to the city schools as a consulting nurse.
When the Board of Education budget was tight, “She volunteered her time” as a nurse, said Frances Belmonte-Mann, a retired CPS nurse and instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Eileen never missed a day of work.”
Every Christmas, Mrs. Byrne bought and wrapped presents for dozens of schoolchildren who were facing lean holidays, she said.
Mrs. Byrne always dressed beautifully and sometimes even slept sitting up so she wouldn’t squash her styled hair.
She loved going to the movies and having a cocktail of Dewar’s on the rocks with a couple of olives.
She enjoyed traveling to Italy, Mexico and Northern Ireland and rode an elephant in Thailand and a camel in Morocco.
Survivors also include daughter Isabella; sons Charles and John; a sister, Frances Draut, and two grandchildren.