The interracial marriage of Lionel and Vicky Aldridge made Green Bay Packers and NFL history. Then mental illness and violence tore them apart. But their criss-crossing paths were far from over.
Upstairs in her two-story house in Milwaukee’s pleasant Story Hill neighborhood, Vicky Aldridge is sitting on her bed, and she is looking at an 1876 centennial collector’s rifle.
It’s pointed at her forehead, and she knows it’s loaded, because she just watched the man holding it shove in the bullets.
He cocks it.
And now, he has something to tell her.
She knows the baritone voice well. It belongs to Lionel Aldridge, her husband, and yet at this moment, not her husband at all. The Lionel she married was a funny charmer and brave protector, a man she so loved that she risked losing her family for him. He had played football for the Green Bay Packers, adjusting so well to Vince Lombardi’s discipline that he started as a rookie. Lombardi had never started rookies.
Aldridge helped Green Bay win the first Super Bowl, then three days later, on Jan. 18, 1967, he married Vicky. And by saying yes, she undid the tightest of ties to her small-town Utah family, who couldn’t comprehend their white daughter and sister being with a black man.
But Aldridge’s talents went beyond football. During Packers downtime, he was a sports anchor on WTMJ, a man with such presence and promise that NBC put him on national broadcasts soon after his playing career ended. The charm that attracted Vicky also won viewers over. But TV screens revealed only so much, offering no clue Aldridge was tiptoeing on the edge of sanity, or that he was beating his wife.
Minutes before Lionel levels that rifle at her head, Vicky is in the final stages of putting an end to those beatings. The plan is simple, if sketchy. She’ll pack up some bags, then go pick up her two young daughters from school, and they’ll head for the bus station. She’ll select a route, and they’ll go wherever her small amount of cash can get them. Not back home to her family in Utah. With the biracial children, she still can’t go there. But somewhere.
The bags are on her bed and packed. All she needs to do is leave. But before she can, he arrives home. He sees what she’s doing. He retrieves the rifle and loads it. He smashes its butt into the luggage and throws the crushed bags downstairs. He puts the rifle between her eyes and tells her, point-blank, “If you ever try to leave me, I’ll kill you.”
“So that stopped me,” Vicky says, now some 40 years removed from the peril. She gives a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, he could get very scary. And I’m sure that was his mental illness coming more and more.”
She didn’t know he’d someday be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Or that he’d inadvertently solve her domestic violence problems by embarking on his own brain-addled cross-country sojourn, or that he was destined to join the ranks of the homeless. She didn’t know of the comeback that awaited him, that his destructive illness would someday serve constructive purposes, that she and so many others would never stop loving a man born on Valentine’s Day. She, who knew him so well, still didn’t know so much about Lionel.
The handsome black Utah State University football player, with the short hair and sparkling eyes, broad smile and broader shoulders, has been asking Vicky Wankier for a date. He often sees her while working his side job of cleaning a gym, because that’s where Vicky practices with her Aggiettes dance squad. After a few rounds of hard-to-get, the lithe and lively girl with the long chestnut hair finally says yes.
She tells him to just come to her dormitory lobby, where they’ll sit and have a good talk. He laughs into the phone. “I can’t do that.” She protests, wondering why not. “Just trust me,” he says.Yes, Lionel Aldridge, a wisened junior in the spring of 1962, knows straightaway what they are getting into. You could count the number of black men at Utah State on two hands, and they don’t get to stay by making eyes at white women in their dorm lobbies. Vicky, just a freshman and still naive to racial realities, would get wise soon enough.
Barely integrated though it was, Utah State was still the most multiracial experience Vicky had ever known. She was born in August 1943, and she grew up in Levan, the tiniest of central Utah towns. And of course, she was raised Mormon, just like everyone else in her hometown.
Her family bonds – with father Farrell Wankier and mother Thela, older brother Farrell Jr. and older sister Norine – were country strong. And nine years the youngest child, she was every bit daddy’s little girl, even into her teens. He had one glass eye and terrible peripheral vision, so when she drove him around town, Vicky had a job. She’d name the person they were driving past and tell him which direction to wave. So in this way, the successful sheep farmer, shopkeeper and future Levan mayor could call out a personalized hello.
When Vicky went to Utah State for a teaching degree, the Wankiers knew she’d be in good hands. Farrell Sr. was old friends with Daryl Chase, the school’s president. She’d practically have family there.
For Aldridge, the closest thing to family in Utah was the Aggies’ football team, because his actual family was scattered far and wide. Born in 1941 in Evergreen, La., he grew up fully immersed in the era’s southern brand of racism. He was a grandson of sharecroppers and son of a father he never really knew. His mother also left when he was young, called to Detroit to care for family, leaving Lionel with his grandparents. She could never afford to return, and poor though they were, the grandparents gave him as good a life as they could. He helped in the fields, but wanted no part of such grueling work for a lifetime, so he poured himself into school, hell-bent on getting to college.
Which didn’t mean there wasn’t some rebel in him. His path to the school for black children took him past an all-white school, and black kids had to walk on the other side of the road. One afternoon on his way home, young Lionel sprinted across the street and slapped one of the white school’s buses. He kept on sprinting, spurred on by an incensed mob of white children. But none were in sight when he arrived home, a hint of his budding athleticism.
And yet, he never played organized sports in Louisiana. That didn’t come until he was 15, when his grandfather’s death prompted Lionel’s move to live with an uncle and aunt in Pittsburg, Calif. It was a different world in the San Francisco suburb, and at Pittsburg High School, Lionel excelled at track, basketball and football. Then Pittsburg’s football coach took a job at Utah State and convinced Lionel to follow.
Aldridge turned into a standout for the Aggies, but it still wasn’t easy for a black man in Logan. The racial slurs he’d grown up with in Louisiana and been distanced from in California became common again. And as his relationship with Vicky grew into an open secret, he got even more unwelcome attention.
One day, Chase called Vicky into his office, then called her father’s phone number by memory. “I think your daughter has something to tell you,” the school president told Farrell, and handed the receiver to Vicky. “Hi Dad,” she said. “I’m dating Lionel Aldridge. He’s black.”
Farrell’s reply was succinct. “We’ll be right there.” Lionel was soon summoned, and the kids were told just how bad this relationship was for both of them. They agreed to end it, never truly intending to do so.
Chase tasked a dean with watching her closely, but she was too far down the path with Lionel to be swayed by protests from her family or anyone else. She didn’t see what the big deal was with race, and couldn’t understand why others didn’t understand.
Vicky and Lionel were careful to do things under the radar and off campus. Lionel would borrow a friend’s car, and they’d drive to nearby Logan Canyon. In time, their love grew serious. For her devotion, she was called nigger-lover, and no sorority would have her. For his temerity, once his four years of football eligibility were up, so was his welcome at Utah State. School officials said it was grades. Vicky remains convinced it was their relationship, an example of how Lionel risked his career while she risked her family.
So he didn’t graduate, and Vicky recalls that when Aldridge was invited to prestigious college all-star games like the East-West Shrine Game, Utah State wouldn’t give him a helmet. He had to borrow one from his high school.
None of that dissuaded a certain bespectacled NFL coach from spending a fourth-round draft pick on him in 1963.
Lionel Aldridge is in Vince Lombardi’s office, a place you generally don’t want to be, an invitation impossible to decline. And although the 1966 season has been another good one for the 6-foot-4, 245-pound defensive end, he’s not in here for a pat on the back.
The Green Bay Packers coach has heard through the grapevine that Aldridge is, with regularity, bringing a white woman into town. He wants an explanation. So Lionel begins to tell him about Vicky.
They’d secretly gotten engaged back in 1963. At the end of Aldridge’s rookie season, he flew Vicky to San Francisco for Green Bay’s finale against the 49ers. He and teammate Dave Robinson had some people in their hotel room before the game, and Lionel pulled her into the bathroom. He produced a one-carat diamond ring. She’d kept it hidden away for her last two years at Utah State. Not long after her graduation in 1965, they decided she should move to Milwaukee.
Vicky knew that, as far as her family was concerned, crossing the Mississippi River meant crossing the Rubicon. While she’d held out hope her family would come around on Lionel, they were equally hopeful she’d come to her senses and ditch him. But moving to Milwaukee ended her family’s hopes and, for the most part, her close relationship with them. Years later, she’d find out just how deep an impact this had back in Levan.
So, Aldridge explains to Lombardi, he’s not just bringing some floozy up to Green Bay. This is the woman he’s wanted to marry for years, only now, he’s afraid to do so. Not because of what her family will think. Not even because of what his teammates will think. After all, Aldridge was the rookie who’d heard a fellow Packer utter the word nigger, then threw him up against a wall and declared an end to that word in the locker room.
No, Aldridge is reluctant to marry Vicky because he knows what happened to Cookie Gilchrist. A black running back who drew comparisons to Jim Brown, Gilchrist was blackballed from the NFL because he married a white woman and relegated to the Canadian Football League. Aldridge doesn’t want the same thing happening to him.
Lombardi’s response, as related by Robinson, showcases the coach’s famed combination of gruff compassion and equanimity. “Vince told him, ‘Listen, I want you to marry her and make an honest woman out of her,’” Robinson recalls. “‘You do what’s right and let me worry about the rest of it.’ Lionel said he couldn’t wait to go home and tell Vicky.”
That wasn’t quite the end of it. At some point, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle came to town and told Lombardi the marriage would be bad for the league. Lombardi pretty much told Rozelle where to go. “He said, ‘This is my team,’” Vicky recalls. “‘You can’t tell me how to run it.’” Were Aldridge on any other team, she believes, he couldn’t have married her and stayed in the league. Only Lombardi could stand up to Rozelle.
They had the wedding at a little chapel in Las Vegas, not wanting to run afoul of any interracial marriage laws elsewhere. They stayed at the Tropicana and caught Bill Cosby’s stand-up act. Three days earlier, Green Bay had won the inaugural Super Bowl, and Lionel’s champion status earned him a measure of fame – and some primo seats.
At the table next to them were teammates from a different Pack – Rat Pack stars Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. Lionel whispered to Vicky, wondering if he should ask for autographs. Seconds later, Lawford leaned over. “Could I get your autograph?” he asked Lionel.
Aldridge didn’t hesitate to oblige, then whispered something else to Vicky. “Well, there’s no way I’m gonna ask for one now.”
Dave Robinson and Lionel are about to fight. The Packers roomies are best of friends, with linebacker Robinson the perfect easy-going complement to Aldridge’s moodiness. But the battle is imminent.
Lionel has arrived upset because Vicky’s been slighted by another player’s spouse. Although Vicky has a foot in with the black wives because of Lionel and another foot in with the white wives, she hasn’t been fully accepted by either camp. Her latest issue has so angered Lionel that he’s poised to confront the offending wife’s husband. Robinson tries curtailing Aldridge’s vendetta. Lionel tells him to mind his own business. Robinson presses further into it.
“You are my business,” Robinson says. He tells Aldridge the team can’t risk losing him over some brouhaha that stems from their wives’ spats. So, he’s going to stop Lionel. “If we have to fight, we’ll fight.” Lionel takes a long look at Robinson. “You’re crazy,” Aldridge says. They have a good laugh, and Aldridge admits Robinson’s right.
If Lombardi’s blessing unlocked the NFL’s interracial marriage barrier, it wasn’t a panacea for the Aldridges. The ramifications were felt not so much in the locker room, but up in the stands or during social gatherings, where Vicky often felt excluded from the cliques.
The wives had a tradition of rotating watch parties at their homes when the Packers were on the road. The first time Vicky’s turn came, she laid out a fanciful spread, but when game time arrived, none of her guests did. She called around and heard various excuses – illness, busy, what have you – but the message was clear.
Another time, at a home game, Vicky went to her seat among some black wives, including Willie Davis’ wife, Ann, and Elijah Pitts’ wife, Ruth. Vicky found they’d given it away. “Go find a seat someplace else,” Ann said. Some white wives, including Jim Grabowski’s spouse, Kathy, overheard, and Kathy invited Vicky to sit with them. At this, Ann told Vicky they’d make room for her. Vicky told her to F-off and sat next to Kathy, who would become a cherished friend and remembers Vicky being “friends with everybody she could be.”
In time, Pitts would also grow close to Vicky. During the season, they lived in the same Green Bay apartment complex, one of the few local places that rented to blacks. She saw all that Vicky endured, and during a team party, the two were in the ladies’ restroom.
“Vicky,” Pitts recalls saying, “I am really sorry if us black girls have done anything to make you uncomfortable. I apologize for everybody.” Tensions eased, and Vicky embraced her dearest friends because she had no family support. She kept calling Utah every Sunday, especially to speak with her father, but conversations were perfunctory.
Still, Vicky could enjoy some perks that life as a Packers wife provided. There were the parties, meeting celebrities and sharing the love showered upon the players. This was, after all, a golden era in Green Bay. From 1965-67, the Packers were nothing but kings, winning the last NFL championship and the first two Super Bowls.
Meanwhile, the Aldridge family was growing into their Story Hill home. On Dec. 28, 1967, daughter Angela was born in Milwaukee. Lionel drove down from Green Bay to see mother and baby, but he couldn’t stay long. On Dec. 31, he had to play in the Ice Bowl.
Two weeks later, with Vicky and Angela still in Milwaukee, the Packers won Super Bowl II in Miami. Lionel called home saying some guys wanted to celebrate in the Bahamas, and he wondered if she’d mind. She was breastfeeding when the call came, and stopped long enough for Lionel to hear Angela crying. “Does it sound like you can go to the Bahamas for a week?” she asked.
He came home.
As the 1960s come to an end and the birth of their second daughter approaches, Vicky notices subtle changes in Lionel. The longer he’s played football, the angrier he’s become.
Looking back on it today, she wonders whether all those football hits took too big a toll. She’s heard from Lionel’s teammates how he’d get “dinged” in the head and return to the huddle, not knowing where he was. And she knows modern scientists are edging toward a direct relationship between concussions, mood changes, domestic violence and mental health issues.
But on a day in the fall of 1969, all Vicky knows is that Lionel is somehow different, and she’s about to learn the extent. She returns to their Green Bay apartment one afternoon, running behind schedule, and Lionel accuses her of being late because she’s having an affair. Lionel’s teammates had always treaded lightly around Vicky at parties, knowing that if they looked at her too long, his jealousy and temper might flare. But before Vicky can get over her surprise at this accusation, Lionel slaps her.
There is no affair, she says, but the violence puts her beyond discussing it. She collects Angela and drives to their Milwaukee home, wondering what just happened. They’d been through so much together, made so many sacrifices for each other, all for the sake of love. Now this? “It was something I never expected from him,” she says.
He calls Vicky and apologizes, promising to never do it again. She acquiesces, neither expecting nor believing the violence will continue. Instead, it worsens.
Michelle is born in February of 1970, but the presence of a second beloved child cannot stem the mounting malaise inside the Aldridge home. Visits from friends become scarce. Lionel keeps hitting Vicky, and sometimes, the only way she can get him to stop is calling Angela into the room. When the little girl enters, he relents. “I probably shouldn’t have involved her,” Vicky says today, “but I just didn’t know what to do. I had tried everything.” She’d call the police, but to no avail. “Because of who he was,” Vicky says, “they would just pat his head and tell him to not do that anymore.”
When Vicky’s mother dies in September 1971, it’s the impetus for a true reconciliation with her father. Despite the thaw, however, she knows biracial children won’t be welcome back in Utah, so returning there isn’t an option.
After the ’71 season, slumping Green Bay trades an aging Aldridge to San Diego, where he’ll play two more years. His paranoia progresses, and he often accuses Vicky of trying to poison him. A Chargers teammate suggests he try transcendental meditation, and he does, sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for hours on end. The 1973 season concludes, and so does Aldridge’s NFL career. But he’s had a plan for life after football, and now, it’s ready to blossom.
Back in Milwaukee, a full-time broadcasting job with WTMJ awaits. Since the mid-1960s, he’s done offseason work for the TV and radio stations, steadily honing his natural talent. Robinson remembers a diligent Lionel working to drop his southern accent, reading books in their room and repeating phrases like “how now brown cow.” The newly retired Aldridge continues doing sports anchor work on local newscasts. But now that he can work during football season, TMJ puts him on Packers radio broadcasts, pairing him with the singular play-by-play talents of Jim Irwin. It’s not long before NBC tabs him as an analyst for national TV games.
“He had a future at the network level,” says Hank Stoddard, then TMJ’s sports director. Stoddard compares Aldridge’s analytical acumen, and his ability to communicate it, to the modern-day skills of Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman. “He was destined to become that type.”
[quote align=’left’]Aldridge’s slide from sanity comes at an ever-quickening pace.[/quote]
Stoddard is 80 years old now and living near the Pacific Ocean in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Over a morning cup of coffee, he reminisces on Lionel while gazing out a window. He notes how the fog hides his view of the water, and he laments the fog that so enveloped Lionel.
He’d started seeing troubling signs at work. The friendly cameraman who complained about Lionel’s attitude. Aldridge asking why he had to go to Green Bay when the baseball reporter needed only drive to County Stadium. But one day, the problems crystallize.
Aldridge is supposed to do the 5 p.m. broadcast, but as the time approaches, he’s at his desk just staring at the wall. Stoddard looks at the script in his typewriter: “My name is Lionel Aldridge, and I can do anything.” That’s it. Stoddard tells the news director Aldridge can’t go on and ad-libs the 5 p.m. broadcast himself. Aldridge is driven home.
The slide from sanity comes at an ever-quickening pace. It includes blanking out while broadcasting a game, leaving Irwin hanging without an analyst. It includes a rifle pointed at his wife’s head. It leads to a nervous breakdown in February 1975, a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder, and a monthlong stay at Milwaukee Psychiatric Hospital. It leads him to the care of Dr. Alan Reed, then something of a celebrity psychologist in Milwaukee, but who Vicky and friends say only made things worse. Indeed, years later, Reed would lose his state license amid allegations that he had sex with a patient.
Reed isolates Lionel for weeks, refusing to let Vicky or anyone else see him, even Aldridge’s mother, who’s traveled from Detroit. Reed later tells Lionel he should divorce Vicky, and for years, she’d have done anything to get away from him. But when finally given this exit route, she doesn’t want it, feeling she shouldn’t abandon Lionel in his current state. Aldridge moves out anyway, still far from stable. The clearest indication comes in August 1977.
Despite the separation, Lionel visits his old house often, so when he shows up one evening, it’s not surprising. But what he does next is surreal.
As he’s leaving, Lionel picks up Charlie, the family’s little white mutt, and walks outside. Vicky follows, asking where he’s taking the dog. Lionel doesn’t answer. Instead, he walks into the driveway, raises Charlie over his head, and hurls the dog to the ground. Horrified, Vicky screams at Lionel and tries pushing him away, but to no avail. He kicks the dog, then walks to the corner and sits on the curb, waiting for the police to arrive. The dog will soon die.
“I think it was his way of just crying out, saying somebody has got to find out what’s wrong with me,” Vicky says now. “The kids, luckily, were in bed, and luckily, it wasn’t me he picked up and smashed.” He spends another month hospitalized, this time at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. Vicky warns Reed to stay away. She knows he’s been unfaithful to his wife and threatens to tell her. It works. Lionel is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. For the first time, he’s medicated with Haldol.
It stops the voices but leaves him feeling like a zombie, so he doesn’t always take it.
Aldridge struggles to continue his broadcasting career, and his TMJ co-workers support him, allowing time off when necessary. But it’s too great a battle. One night, unable to go on the air, he sobs in his boss’ office. Despite the protests of his colleagues, in 1979, he resigns. He still won’t take his medication regularly.
He is at a loss, and now, he’ll become lost. The voices tell him to start driving, so he starts wandering aimlessly about the country, the gasoline bills always sent home to Vicky. At first, she pays them, but soon cancels the credit card. She has to make ends meet for the kids, and her job as a radio station ad sales rep only pays so much. As it turns out, former Packer Willie Davis owns the station, WLUM, but she won’t learn this until running into him at the office Christmas party.
She files for divorce in 1980, but it’s delayed and delayed because Lionel can’t be found. Finally, in 1982, the divorce goes through without his presence. Vicky and the kids leave for California to start a new life.
Farrell Wankier Sr., who has remarried after Thela’s death, is heading to Las Vegas with his second wife, and their path takes them through a southwestern Utah town called Beaver. They stop at a diner for a bite to eat, and in the midst of their repast, a man takes a seat next to them.
“Hello, Farrell,” the newcomer says. It is, through an astronomical coincidence, Lionel, who is hitchhiking through the area. Farrell barely recognizes him, but offers to buy his meal, and he accepts. Farrell also offers him a ride, and Lionel declines. They go their separate ways, and Farrell relays the amazing encounter to Vicky.
Throughout the early 1980s, Lionel’s cross-country wanderlust has taken him everywhere and nowhere, from Florida to Oregon, and seemingly all points in between. He’s gone to the places he once lived – Louisiana, Utah, California – and to places he’d never known. Many of those places, he’s reached on foot, after selling his car for $100 in Florida. He’s gotten work, and then left it behind. He’s slept in a field near Salt Lake City, and left a Super Bowl ring behind.
With its loss, the lone tangible connection to his Packers past is a battered old Bible he’d kept from his playing days.
His path eventually winds toward Milwaukee, but he gets stranded in Sidney, Neb. A charitable agency buys his bus ticket for the rest of the trip, and he settles in at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission. Back in the city that had been home for so long, he makes the medical breakthrough that’s eluded him for so long. Dr. Melvin Soo Hoo finds a minimal medication level that works for Lionel, and he starts taking it with far more regularity. In January 1985, the 18th anniversary of that first Super Bowl, Aldridge learns his former teammates are chipping in to replace his lost championship ring. Lionel also lands work with the post office, then returns to broadcasting part time, and he gets an East Side apartment.
By 1986, Vicky and the kids are back in Milwaukee, too. The California plans haven’t worked out, and Davis offers Vicky her old job back. She accepts, and comes home not just with daughters Angela and Michelle, but a granddaughter, too. Angela had gotten pregnant at age 17 and gave birth to Monica in 1985.
Vicky remarries in 1987 to a gentleman named Joe Nelson, who also happens to be black, and their wedding is at Milwaukee’s All Saints Cathedral. She loves his quiet confidence and steady nature, and he bonds well with her daughters. He also supports Vicky’s encouragement that Angela and Michelle forge a relationship with Lionel. She warns that if they don’t, they’ll someday regret it, knowing how much it meant to rebuild things with Farrell before his death in 1994.
“She never spoke a bad word about [Lionel], and she could’ve,” Michelle says. “She never made us feel like he didn’t love us. She just said that he was sick and not able to have a relationship.”
Michelle, now 44 and living with her husband in Kentucky, tears up remembering the first time she saw the new Lionel. “He just looked completely different. He looked good, but didn’t look the same as I remembered him. A little awkward. But it was good.”
By then, Lionel had stabilized enough to become a spokesman for mental health issues. He gives a speech at Michelle’s high school, telling his own story so that others might learn from it. And in addition to his local mental health advocacy, he gives speeches nationwide on behalf of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. To this day, NAMI bestows the annual Lionel Aldridge Award at its national convention to a person living with mental illness, recognizing their “courage, leadership and service.”
Time, and time spent together, slowly bridges the gap between father and daughters. He brings them Christmas gifts. They share meals, either at his favorite George Webb or at his apartment, where he serves up broiled chicken and white rice. They check on him often to make sure he’s OK, and to make sure he’s on his medication. “You could always tell when he’d not taken it because he would begin to swear more,” Michelle says.
When he’s too far off his meds, the girls must persuade him to go to the hospital, molding their tactics to whatever personality he exhibits. Sometimes, he’s like a little boy, and they tempt him with promises of ice cream. Sometimes, he’s a mean man, and they must meet him with firm and forceful language. But he never gets violent with them.
Vicky also reconnects with Lionel, and she says Joe never questions nor feels threatened by it. And Lionel is re-embraced by his football roots. He’s inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1988. He’s named to Utah State’s All-Century Team in 1993.
A few years later, Aldridge has a car accident that requires a tracheotomy, and Vicky makes regular hospital visits, reading to him and making sure he’s well-cared for. He weighs some 400 pounds, and the doctor tells him if he doesn’t lose 50 pounds, he’ll be dead in a year.
Vicky takes the opportunity to tell Lionel something, too. He can’t speak, so it’s her chance to share just how much trouble and angst he’d caused, and she doesn’t have to worry about him talking back. He gives a muffled laugh, and she follows through on the promise, unloading all those years of pent-up pain and frustration. He absorbs it all without flinching.
“When I left him,” Vicky remembers, “he mouthed, ‘I love you.’”
During the late afternoon of Feb. 12, 1998, Michelle arrives at Lionel’s apartment near Estabrook Park, where they’d so often shared broiled chicken with rice. But this is not a dinner date, just another check-in.
When she knocks on the door, Lionel doesn’t answer. It’s locked, but through a window, she can see him sitting at a desk. She knocks on the glass to get his attention, and though she thinks she can see him breathing, he doesn’t respond. She pounds harder. Still nothing.
Now she is getting frantic. She runs to another apartment and knocks on the door for help. A woman answers and is on the phone, and even though Michelle is panicked and screaming, the woman will not get off the phone. She goes to another door and a man answers. She tells him her father is dying or dead.
The man lets her in, and by now, Michelle’s mind is racing so much she can’t remember the number for 911. The man calls it for her, and rescuers are dispatched. Vicky is also notified, and she arrives, as does the boyfriend who’d later become Michelle’s husband. Police get through the window and into Lionel’s apartment. They won’t let Michelle in. They tell her he’s dead.
It is two days before Lionel’s 57th birthday. The medical examiner’s report, according to a New York Times story, lists him at 408 1/2 pounds. His heart, so strong for so long, finally failed, the doctor’s ominous prophecy come true.
Joe Nelson plans the Feb. 16 funeral at All Saints Cathedral, and it is massive. Hundreds fill the church to capacity. “It seemed,” Michelle says, “like thousands.”
The audience reflects the full spectrum of Lionel’s journey. Vicky and Joe, other family and friends from Milwaukee and afar, city officials and mental health professionals, people in the media and people who were homeless. And, of course, a slew of Green Bay Packers, Willie Davis, Jerry Kramer, Bob Long and Dave Robinson among them. Michelle and Angela give eulogies, as does Monica, Lionel’s 12-year-old granddaughter.
“Lionel affected a lot of people in his life, whether he knew it or not,” Vicky says. “It was quite a tribute.” And because he had no insurance to handle the bill, those who shared in so much of his life give his family one more gift. His Packers’ teammates pick up the tab.
Looking back, it was never a question. “He was one of ours. He was a Green Bay Packer,” Robinson declares. “His troubles were our troubles.”
Not long after Lionel’s death, Vicky and Monica are in Utah visiting Norine, Vicky’s sister. It’s a sign of how far their once-cold relationship has come. Norine produces some letters that she and their mother, Thela, exchanged shortly after Vicky left Utah. Vicky and Monica sit on their bed, reading through them in chronological order. Tears stream down Vicky’s face.
Your dad is lying here on the couch in the dark. He hasn’t eaten in a couple of days. We’re not talking to anybody. How could she do this to us?
The content of the letters haunts Vicky, and the next morning, Norine admits to wondering whether she should’ve let Vicky see them. Vicky gives Norine a long hug and apologizes for leaving with Lionel. “It wasn’t to cause any pain or hurt,” she says. “I just fell in love.”
The ladies go out to get their nails done, and Vicky tries to pay, but Norine won’t have it. She won’t let her pay for anything else, either. When it’s time to go, she thanks Norine for all the hospitality. “I was so mean to you for so many years,” Norine says. “I’ve got a lot of making up to do.” It cements their renewal.
Vicky remembers back to the night she was reading those letters with Monica, and what Monica had told her while taking her hand: “Oh Grandma, your mom and dad loved you,” Monica said. “You were just ahead of your time.”
Ruth Pitts doesn’t know why she selects this particular prayer shawl. She goes through 10 or 20 of them, finally settling on a crocheted piece with warm brown tones and the merest hint of gold and green. Yes, she decides, this is it. The ladies at her United Methodist Church in Palm Springs, Calif., make the shawls, which are blessed and mailed out monthly to people needing prayer and comfort. In November of 2011, Pitts knows Vicky Aldridge Nelson needs both.
Daughter Angela has died at age 43, unable to overcome years of her own drug and alcohol addiction. Like Lionel’s memorial service, her funeral is at All Saints Cathedral. In the weeks and months afterward, Vicky comes to cherish the shawl, wearing it every day.
In the autumn of 2014, Vicky clutches the shawl even tighter. After living a life full of years both good and bad, she’s in the midst of a particularly rough stretch. Stoddard, still friends with Vicky, had long ago nicknamed her the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Lately, she’s had to be.
In September, her 81-year-old brother, Farrell Jr., dies in Salt Lake City. When Vicky was a child and he’d come home on leave from the Army, she’d leap into his arms, and he’d produce a teddy bear. Then came the estrangement, which later gave way to their gradual knitting of the breach. Once, during Lionel’s lost years of wanderlust, Farrell Jr. gave him money when he showed up unannounced. And when Vicky married Joe, it was Farrell Jr. who walked her down the aisle.
Then in October, Vicky’s mourning load doubles. Granddaughter Monica dies at age 28, and like her mother, addiction plays a role. Vicky deplores the continued stigma of addiction, how most don’t think of it as a disease, mirroring the public’s still-stigmatized perception of mental illness. All Saints hosts yet another Aldridge funeral.
On top of it all, Joe is starting to have health issues. His arteries need stents. He’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Vicky’s shawl is ever-present. And now, her Utah family wants to be, too.
Norine and Farrell Jr.’s widow, Deanna, beg Vicky to move to Utah with Joe, beg her to let them help lighten the load. When Vicky and Joe were at Farrell’s funeral, they visited Salt Lake City’s picturesque Liberty Park. Joe struck up a conversation with a passing black man, asking where he gets his hair cut. The man told him about a nearby barbershop, and how much he enjoyed living in the city.
And so, in November, a once-cozy Milwaukee home is full of boxes. Vicky Aldridge Nelson is shipping them to Utah, where she was once ostracized for marrying a black man. Now, she will return there with husband Joe, and accept the warm and abiding embrace of family.
Howie Magner is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at email@example.com.