Chicago Police Department officers such as Joseph P. Phelan Jr. don’t buy charity raffle tickets to win prizes; they’re just responding to need.
Such was the motivation of the Mt. Greenwood resident who is now being mourned after his death on March 19 at age 68. His compassion and service to others, his family said, will be missed by many.
In 1998, Phelan purchased a $20 raffle ticket to support Special Olympics-Illinois, but he had no idea—nor did he care—that it would lead to a new, customized Chevy Blazer and the opportunity to meet “The Greatest.”
Phelan bought the ticket after reading a newspaper article at his kitchen table. The story about a Special Olympics athlete motivated Phelan to pick up the phone and call in a donation by credit card, which got him the raffle ticket—and that was the last he thought of it.
So, Phelan can be excused for ignoring phone calls from the charity weeks later—he thought they were solicitations.
On the third call, Phelan learned he had won the Blazer that also featured two arm rests bearing the signatures of two of the 20th century’s greatest athletes: Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.
That memory was just one of many recounted by friends and loved ones as they gathered on March 23 at St. Christina Roman Catholic Church, a short walk from Phelan’s home.
Even the choice of the post-Mass luncheon at Fox’s Pub in Oak Lawn carried significance—it was the location of his first date with Jean Golden, a registered radiation therapist who became his soulmate and dedicated wife of 41 years.
Chicago Police Department Chaplain Dan Brandt eulogized his friend and colleague, reciting the single words that family members used to describe their loved one: perseverance, integrity, courageous, dedicated, witty.
When Phelan arrived at Michael Jordan’s Restaurant on LaSalle Street to claim his spectacular raffle prize curbside, his wit and physical humor were also on display.
The always-mischievous Ali dangled the car keys in front of Phelan’s nose, pulling them back as if recoiling a rabbit punch, only to see Phelan feign a wild haymaker of his own, twirling his fist behind his ear like Popeye the Sailor.
According to those in the crowd, Ali started laughing when Phelan faked the punch, and a wave of hilarity washed over the crowded sidewalk.
Although he was seriously funny, Phelan was also serious about his profession.
“Joe always wanted to be a police officer,” said Brandt.
Police work defined Phelan. He, in turn, brought an intense definition to a vocation that is not for everyone. For 10 years, Phelan was a patrolman and for 20 more a detective.
Unbeknownst to many, in early adulthood Phelan was already in the throes of multiple sclerosis, absorbing damage to the central nervous system.
“Joe carried a heavy cross for many, many years with this horrible disease,” said Brandt. “Jean helped Joe throughout, thank God.”
According to Phelan’s brother Ed, the story of Jean and Joe filled many chapters.
“That was a love story,” Ed Phelan said. “That road doesn’t exist if Joe and Jean don’t go down it together.”
Jean credited her brother, Mike Golden, and his wife, Kathleen, for being there for her during Phelan’s illness.
In simpler times, Phelan was hooked on Whiffle Ball, the popular indoor sport that became a craze at St. Sabina Elementary School. According to classmate and friend Russ Coughlin, Phelan was a skilled Whiffle Ball innovator, and he sported an arsenal of pitches with that holey ball: a slider, a riser and a drop-off-the-table curveball.
At bat, Phelan rolled up his sleeves over his young shoulders, copying 1959 White Sox player Ted “Big Klu” Kluszewski, who would cut off his uniform sleeves because he believed they restricted his swing, but mostly to expose his massive biceps.
Phelan continued his love of indoor sports (and rolled-up sleeves) while lettering in bowling at Leo High School, where he graduated in 1968. His game continued to flourish in South Side bowling leagues, and he averaged in the mid-200s during his best seasons.
According to Phelan’s sister, Mary Ellen Weber, despite dealing with physical problems, Phelan succeeded.
“We knew he was in great pain,” she said, “but none of us ever heard him complain.”
On the day Phelan met Ali, they posed for cameras to celebrate the occasion. When the photos were developed, the family thereafter referred to them playfully as the moment when “Ali met The Greatest!”
Phelan is survived by his wife, Jean; his siblings, Mary Ellen (Dennis) Weber, Edward (Susan) Phelan and Patricia (Scott) Alford; his in-laws, Sharon O’Neil, Joann (Ted) Neven, Patricia Stack, Michael (Kathleen) Golden, Richard (Jan) Golden, Kathleen (Ron) Biamonte, Anne Halloran and Therese (Tom) Kelly; and many nieces and nephews.
Funeral services were held March 23 from Sheehy and Sons Funeral Home to St. Christina Church. A private interment followed.
Phelan was a member of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7.
Donations are appreciated to the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, 1407 W. Washington Blvd., Chicago, IL 60607.