By RICK KOGAN
Every day at noon, death visits Ira Antelis. He welcomes it because, in a very real if virtual sense, he’s the one who invited death into his otherwise happy, successful and wildly creative life by launching this summer a website called the We Have Loved memorial, an altruistic endeavor he’s happy to share with the world.
One recent morning in the Wicker Park building where he has a small office and the use of a large recording studio, he was saying: “Death is not a number. … And the numbers come at you on TV and in newspapers ... ’254 deaths yesterday, 546 deaths yesterday’ you hear and read,” he says. “What goes unspoken is that these numbers are people. … Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends. … They are loved ones to whom we were not allowed to say goodbye. No funerals. No public memorials. Sometimes not even a chance to speak on the phone.”
When the pandemic began to take its terrible toll, some publications and television programs tried to capture the lives of the deceased. For a time, the Tribune was printing on a steady basis the obituaries of local people who had died from the disease. I wrote a few of these as did other reporters but as the deaths mounted and the press of other duties and events strained the staff, the paper ceased running these editorial obituaries of COVID-19 victims.
“I would watch the news and every night all I would get were those numbers,” Antelis says. “Thinking of the people behind these death numbers, I started to realize that each represented a person, each was now an empty chair at the kitchen table. And that was not OK.”
With the computer-savvy aide of his adult daughter by a first marriage, Isobella, who lives in California, and the enthusiastic support of his wife Jennifer and their son Myles, he launched the site, spreading the word via Facebook and through his extraordinarily large network of friends.
“It has been amazing to watch it grow the way it has,” he says.
The website, which is free, enables visitors to post the names and photos of loved ones lost to COVID-19. Those photos become part of a poignant gallery of the deceased, most of the faces captured at pleasant moments in their lives. Almost all are smiling.
The site also allows visitors to post a few words — 75 characters in total — along with the photos. When you visit, as you should, you will read such entries at “I Feel Sad” (for Jamil Ahmed); “28, Navajo Nation, Feisty, Has 1 Year Old Daughter” (Valentina Blackhorse) “She Did It Her Way” (Barbara Maxwell) and on and on and tragically on.
If you are lucky, you will not know any of the names, but some may jump out at you as some leapt at to me, among them John Prine: “Singer, Songwriter Extraordinaire.”
So far, most states and more than a few countries are represented on the site and this makes Antelis happy because: “It is like the people of the world coming to tell others, ‘I’m sorry too.’”
There are poems and videos at the site and music too. Some of Antelis’ talented local friends — Fareed Haque, Lee Musiker, Goran Ivanovic, Charles Jenkins — have contributed tunes to the site.
“I have long believed in the healing power of music,” says Antelis
Originally from Brooklyn, he came here in the mid-1980s to make music and first did so with the esteemed composer William Russo at Columbia College. He would become one of the city’s most successful and admired music producer/songwriters for such artists as Marc Anthony and Christina Aguilera; a filmmaker and the creative mind behind hundreds of commercials, think “Be Like Mike” for Gatorade and “What You Want is What You Get” for McDonald’s.
He has mentored a generation of younger musicians, most recently Nikki Lynette, who he first met when she performed in one of his commercials when a teenager. He helped her launch her hit musical “Get Out Alive” at Steppenwolf Theatre early in 2020, reimagined as a four-part online series beginning Saturday.
“I am used to juggling a lot of things at once,” he says. “I’m not out to get rich and famous for this. It just makes me feel good knowing I am helping people.”
In December he added to his activities with a “Moment of Silence,” which takes place daily at noon, CT, at the We Have Loved memorial. “It takes nothing to honor the memories of those who have died,” he says. “It’s two minutes out of a day and it might be able to start the healing.”
Make no mistake, there is a certain sadness that will shadow your site visit but once that passes one is left uplifted by a sense of community, a “we are all in this together.” If you have ever seen face-to-face the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. you will have some idea of the impact of being overwhelmed in the most worthwhile way.
Antelis is 63 years old and says that he feels great. He is determined to keep the What We Loved memorial up and running “until this thing comes to an end.” Until then he will be ready every day at noon for his visit with death and every day for whatever else might come his way.
Chicago composer honors COVID-19 victims with tribute website featuring original music https://abc7chicago.com/chicago-covid-illinois-deaths-ira-antelis/8648301/