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Vater Fite, WWII shipyard welder, granddaughter of a slave, dead at 104

Vater Fite celebrating her 104th birthday.

Vater Fite celebrating her 104th birthday. | Provided photo

The granddaughter of a slave, Vater Mae Fite grew up in East Texas, where she learned how to cook a raccoon and check a hen’s nest for snakes before fetching the eggs.

If there was any free time, she and her family studied the Bible or entertained themselves by breaking out musical instruments.

Seeking more opportunity than the red farm soil offered, she moved in 1939 to California and trained as a welder. She worked on battleships in a Naval shipyard, one of the stateside “Rosie the riveters” who helped turn the tide of World War II.

“She was quite proud of it,” said her son LeRoy Lilly. “She was telling us how hard it was to become a welder because women weren’t really allowed to be welders then. And her being black, that was two strikes against her. She did it just by her grit.”

“She was able to do a man’s job, in essence,” said her daughter-in-law Barbara Lilly.

At 65, Mrs. Fite took lessons at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She stretched her own canvases and did her own framing. Her paintings wound up getting exhibited at Oak Park’s library, village hall and parks, according to relatives.

At 84, after teaching herself to play the violin, she’d serenade listeners with “Oh, Susanna” and spirituals.

At 97, Mrs. Fite obtained her first passport so she could accompany her family on trips to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Turks and Caicos. She snapped pictures with her Canon camera of the green scenery and wildlife, preserving memories so she could paint them later.

“She carried that camera like it was the Bible,” said her granddaughter Camille Lilly.

She once wrote, “The beautiful signs, sights and sounds of nature never cease to amaze me and I love to paint the places and things that I have seen. My world is one of color and sights that give me hope. . . .All life is art to me.”

Mrs. Fite died Jan. 17 at the Alden of Waterford care center in Aurora. She was 104.

She lived long enough to see her great-great-grandchildren and become matriarch of a large extended family that includes Camille Lilly, an Illinois state representative, and great-grandson Evan Turner, a basketball phenom at St. Joseph High School in Westchester who plays in the NBA for the Portland Trail Blazers.

She grew up the daughter of Selma and Marvin Conner in Carthage, Texas, where she attended Carthage Colored High School. She married J.C. Lilly. After they divorced, she headed to California to work in the shipyard, said LeRoy Lilly, the last surviving of her five children.

Once the war ended, she returned to Texas. She married her second husband, Grady Fite. When he died, she moved to the Chicago area, where her older sister Herese Buckner was a teacher. Her brother Leon lived in Maywood. Another sister, Inez Jones, remained in Carthage.

Vater Fite (second from left) at 1957 wedding of her son LeRoy Lilly to wife Barbara. On Mrs. Fite’s left is her daughter Vater Jo Goodman. On Mrs. Fite’s right is her daughter Billi June Neal. | Provided photo

For 30 years, Mrs. Fite worked for the state of Illinois as a caregiver, said her granddaughter Jasmyn Lilly. She did home visits, cooking and cleaning for senior citizens. After retiring, she returned to Texas to care for her aging mother. After her mother died, she moved to Oak Park, where she lived with and helped care for sister Herese.

She enjoyed a good mystery, especially anything by John Grisham and James Patterson. Mrs. Fite was fastidious about her appearance and liked to shop at Marshall Field’s and Lord & Taylor. She always kept her Maybelline eyebrow pencil handy.

And she loved the Chicago Cubs. On game days, she often could be heard in noisy conversation with her TV screen, saying things like, “If you don’t hit that ball….”

“She never missed a game,” said Iris James, another granddaughter.

Her favorite player was Anthony Rizzo.

When she watched the Cubs in 2015 from box seats for the first time, Vater Fite was delighted. | Provided photo

Mrs. Fite’s favorite cocktail was a gin and tonic made with Gordon’s gin. She made pound cakes extra delicious by drizzling them with orange and lemon glaze. And the fish she cooked was fresh, never frozen. “Always buy your fish swimming,” she’d say.

In addition to her son, she is survived by seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. Services are at noon Friday at Neighborhood United Methodist Church in Maywood, with burial at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.

Vater Fite (center, front row) celebrating Christmas with multiple generations of her family. On her left is her daughter-in-law Barbara Lilly. Oon her right is granddaughter Iris James. Behind Mrs. Fite is her son LeRoy Lilly. Next row up (from left): state Rep. Camille Lilly and Zuwena Smith. Next row up (from left): Otto Singletary and Richard James. Next row up (from left): Brian Lilly and Chaunte Colquitt. Next row up (from left): Jasmyn Lilly and Darius Turner, topped by great-grandson Evan Turner, who plays in the NBA for the Portland Trail Blazers. | Provided photo