Family seeking 'Angels' of Christmas past

FITHIAN – A former Illinois woman is searching for the "angels" who saved her family in a "Christmas miracle" 25 years ago.

Nancy Stagg, now working at Gaston College, a community college in Dallas, N.C., a small town outside Charlotte, hopes that a farm family – probably from the Fithian area – will remember helping her family during a blizzard on Christmas Eve 1983. Anyone with information about the "Angel family," as Stagg calls them, is urged to call The News-Gazette at 351-5211.

On Dec. 26, 1983, The News-Gazette reported that thousands of travelers in East Central Illinois spent Christmas Eve in emergency shelters because of the storm. According to the Associated Press, the weather death toll nationwide from Dec. 17 to Dec. 27 was 238, including 100 people reported frozen to death. Illinois had 19 weather-related deaths in that time as temperatures were at or below zero for a record 100 consecutive hours.

Illinois State Water Survey records for Champaign on Dec. 24, 1983, showed the low that Christmas Eve was minus 20, with a high of minus 12.

Stagg, who grew up in Naperville, was living in Louisville, Ky., that year. Her former husband, Chris, took a job in Georgetown, Ind., across the Ohio River from Louisville, in November 1983.

"We were trying to get to Naperville for the holidays, to see family," Stagg said.

Stagg's family had not yet seen her then-9-month-old son, Matthew, who had open heart surgery when he was just three months old.

"It was a miracle story to begin with," Stagg said.

"Plans were being made to bring our miracle child to Naperville to spend his first Christmas with our families."

After many months of treatment and surgery, her son was able to fully recover. He now lives and works for Federal Express in Charlotte, N.C.

Stagg remembers Dec. 24, 1983, as being cold but with clear, sunny skies. They left Louisville around noon, expecting to arrive in Naperville around dinner time.

She remembers singing along with Christmas carols on the radio as they drove north on Interstate 65.

The blizzard began about 2:30 p.m., Stagg said.

"It was just terrible," she said. "We were in the middle of one of the worst snowstorms I had ever experienced – and I grew up with some harsh winters."

They heard a weather bulletin that I-65 was closing, so they decided to go west and then back north. The announcer warned that there would be extreme low temperatures and wind chills.

"The actual temperature outside was minus 20 degrees, with a wind chill of minus 70," she said.

"We thought we could get onto I-74 and the conditions might be better," Stagg said.

By that time, it was about 4 p.m., and Stagg recalls seeing only two other cars going in the opposite direction since they left Indianapolis.

"Our car, which had been serviced that morning, all of a sudden stopped working," Stagg said. "It just quietly died, so we had to ease off on the shoulder."

"We were out in the middle of nowhere," she said. "I was thinking we were going to die out there. You couldn't see anything. The drifts were forming on the highway."

As her husband added layers of clothing and prepared to hike out for help, a westbound car came along. Stagg said she began to cry tears of relief as she saw a family in a station wagon.

That family, whom she calls "Mr. and Mrs. Angel," also were trying to visit family, but had to turn around. Stagg said they had left very little food in their refrigerator, knowing they were going to be out of town. They managed to find an open Kentucky Fried Chicken store before reaching the Staggs.

The strangers included the husband and wife, who were probably in their 50s, and one teenage daughter and a younger daughter, Stagg said.

"These strangers appeared out of nowhere and took us into their home," Stagg said.

Stagg said the family took them to a farmhouse, which reminded her of farmhouses she had known visiting her grandmother in the Arcola area.

"Not only did this home look like my grandmother's home, it felt like it, too," Stagg said. "Everything felt so familiar."

The house had gray wool carpet, crown molding, high ceilings and light switches with big push buttons, she said. There was a Christmas tree with miniature lights. Stagg said that while looking at the tree and the "angel daughter" that Christmas morning, she noticed that "Mrs. Angel" returned from her bedroom with a wrapped gift for the Staggs.

Their real gift, according to Stagg, was a Christmas to treasure.

"What I remember most of all was feeling safe, warm, blessed and loved," Stagg said.

"It's the true meaning of Christmas," Stagg said. "They gave us that 25 years ago. Christmas today is how much you can buy or put under a tree. They gave us a chance for my son to grow up to 25 and for me to have another child."

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