Sitting in her apartment at Hearthstone Communities in Woodstock, 96-year-old Maria Bellairs recently reminisced about the good, as well as the heartbreaking, moments of her life.
An active volunteer in the community, Bellairs is well-known for the many causes she supported, which included holding ice cream socials to raise money to save the Opera House, which was crumbling and needed serious repairs, and working to save the Old Courthouse on the Square in the 1970s when someone proposed leveling it and building a parking lot in its place. When a local businessman purchased the property, Bellairs quickly invested in the Courthouse Inn restaurant.
In 1952, Bellairs volunteered her time to serve as a Democratic poll watcher at a rural election site in Alden Township.
“There weren’t any Democrats in the county back then, and I remember everyone stared at me,” Bellairs said, with a laugh. “I was a little nervous to go out there. Of course, no one took a (Democratic) ballot all day.”
Bellairs also volunteered for Meals on Wheels, delivering meals to homebound seniors; the FISH program, where she drove seniors to the grocery store, doctors appointments and other errands; Woodstock Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, where she volunteered in the gift shop and the snack bar; and the Girl Scout Sibequay Council, for which Bellairs served as a troop leader and advanced to holding a council seat. There were several other projects Bellairs gave her time to, as well.
“I did a lot of volunteer work because my (first) husband Ned was a traveling man,” Bellairs said. “I made myself a career out of volunteering so I wouldn’t get bored.”
Bellairs moved from Chicago to Woodstock in 1952 with Ned Henslee, her high school sweetheart from Ft. Wayne, Ind. The couple raised four children, Ann, Edward, Sue and Mark, in a comfortable, midcentury modern-styled home on Lawndale Avenue. The house, which had the unique feature of a swimming pool, was a popular gathering place for the neighborhood children. Bellairs, a yoga instructor in the 1970s long before yoga was popular, often opened her home to the neighboring housewives.
“I would open up my home every Tuesday,” said Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-ah) Bellairs. “We would swim and do yoga.”
Tragically, Ned died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 52 while the couple was vacationing in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1971, and Bellairs found herself a widow at the age of 52.
However, her son Mark Henslee was best friends with a teenager named Rick Bellairs, who lived in Bull Valley with his very large family and often hung out at the Henslee household in town. In 1975, Rick’s father, renown radio personality Mal Bellairs, who owned WIVS and WXRD radio stations in Crystal Lake and Woodstock, respectively, found himself a widower, after his first wife, Jo, died. Jo Bellairs died in August 1975 following a three-year battle with breast cancer.
Bellairs had seven children. “I remember he called me up on Nov. 11 (1975), and asked me if I’d like to go to the high school and listen to the jazz band,” Maria Bellairs said. “We liked each other so much, we got married three weeks later. He was a wonderful man.”
Bellairs didn’t prewarn his radio audience of his Dec. 5 plans to marry Maria. On a Friday afternoon, he played the song, “They Called the Wind Maria,” followed by “Get Me to the Church on Time” during his radio show. The following Monday, Mal Bellairs informed his loyal listeners about his new bride, which surprised many people since it had only been four months since Jo Bellairs’ passing.
“I think everybody was in shock,” Maria Bellairs recalled. “Some women called up the radio station and accused Mal of having an affair on Jo. We got married at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, which was my church. Then people accused us of living in sin because Mal was Catholic. So we got married again at St. Mary’s.”
Bellairs is able to tell the story today with a laugh. Mal Bellairs moved into Maria’s Lawndale Avenue home with his youngest two children. The blended family of 11 children got along surprisingly well, said Maria Bellairs’ daughter, Ann Henslee, of Woodstock.
“We all got along so well, right from the start,” Henslee said. “And my father and Mal were such different men. My father was very private, and, as most people know, Mal was outgoing and a talker.”
Mal Bellairs passed away in July 2010 from congestive heart failure at the age of 90. These days, Maria Bellairs enjoys playing bridge, tending to her apartment and visiting with family members who stop by. Ann Henslee visits her mother every night. The two share stories, and Ann prepares her mother’s coffee pot for the next morning.
“I’m so short now, I can’t reach my coffee pot,” Bellairs said, as the mother and daughter broke out laughing.
“Living History” documents the lives and stories of senior citizens from Woodstock, Wonder Lake and Bull Valley. To recommend a senior citizen to be featured in “Living History,” email firstname.lastname@example.org.