A tribute in lights that became a tradition

Fourteen years ago, a Chicagoan named Walter Payton died too young. An electrician decided to use the windows of a downtown building as an overnight memorial, lighting up Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tower with the "34" the beloved Bears running back wore on his jersey.

This month that electrician, a Chicagoan named Chris Gillott, died too young. And the workers he supervised decided to light up the side of that building — his building — with a tribute to the colleague and friend who started a tradition.


"They wanted to donate their time to do this, just because they cared so much about him and his family," said Mike Rallo, a foreman electrician at the tower.

After more than an hour of employees trudging through offices, pulling blinds and spot-checking their handiwork in the evening chill, anyone driving north into Chicago on Lake Shore Drive last Tuesday could see "THANKS CHRIS" spelled out on the night skyline.

Since that first display honoring Payton in 1999, the south-facing windows of the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tower have been used to celebrate the national soccer team, pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and raise breast cancer awareness. By year's end, building officials expect to have displayed about 39 designs in 2013.

Jeanine Gillott, Chris' widow, said she remembers her husband brainstorming the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tower's first message. A South Side native and devoted Bears fan, Chris Gillott wanted to pay tribute to Payton, who died of cancer at age 45. The Gillotts' daughter and Payton's daughter, who were about the same age, shared the name Brittney, and the elder Gillotts had relished cheering Payton and his teammates on to the Super Bowl title.

"I remember him calling me and thinking up the Walter Payton one," Jeanine Gillott said. "We just loved that whole 1985 Bears team. It was such an exciting time for the city."

Though Gillott, who was 57 when he died of a heart attack Dec. 5, took pride in his work, his family said he wasn't one to brag. A "SOX PRIDE" message after the team's 2005 World Series championship brought some media attention, but Gillott, a technical whiz, never got too impressed with himself.

The method of creating the messages is decidedly low-tech.

The process starts with an idea for a punchy, topical phrase or design that can be clearly communicated in lights. Since it's an insurance building, they're often health messages about AIDS awareness or flu shots. Other favorite subjects include holiday greetings, messages of support for local sports teams and tributes to Chicago first responders.

To create the design, Rallo, who took over the design duties from Gillott many years ago, sits down with a black marker and a paper diagram of the tower's exterior, then sketches out an image of how the message should look from the outside.

When that's complete, he starts with a new picture of the building and flips his original drawing so he can tell his electricians which of the 50 south-facing window blinds to close and which to leave open on each floor.

To form the "THANKS CHRIS" message, a team of electricians (and a couple of workers from other departments who wanted to help pay tribute to their friend) fanned out across the building shortly after 5 p.m. to begin the process of raising some shades and lowering others.

Electrician James Aiello was assigned floors 24 to 27, which would display the upper half of the word "CHRIS." The windows highlighted in red on his diagram were to remain blinds-raised. The ones in black needed the shades closed. The process usually takes several hours, Aiello said.

Before 7 p.m. Tuesday, the work on "THANKS CHRIS" was mostly done. Gillott's family and friends had come out to see the 57-story memorial and share laughs and tears with the workers who made it happen.

"Chris — I can just see him smiling about it," Jeanine Gillott said. "He would be really happy."


and tears with the workers who made it happen.

"Chris — I can just see him smiling about it," Jeanine Gillott said. "He would be really happy."