Close to 100 people came had come out for the event Friday night at Gonzo!! Art Studio in Roseville. Certainly many more were there in spirit, including former Red Wings players Steve Yzerman and Keith Primeau, both of whom had spoken with Pefley earlier to wish her well at the re-dedication.Artist Edward 'Gonzo' Stross and Anita Pefley, mother of Elysia Pefley, admire the repainted mural of the dedicated Red Wings fan on the side of Stross' studio at Gratiot and Utica roads. he heard about the little girl whose courage could (and often did) render big, burly men on skates who get violent for a living into tender, emotional teddy bears.[Caption Info] Brief: Artist Edward Stross and mother of cancer victim Elysia Pelfey, red sweater, Anita Pefley of Columbus Township unveils her mural on the Utica Avenue wall of his studio. Friday, October 11, 2013 (Photo by Ricardo Thomas/The Detroit News) (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
‘I’ve got tears in my eyes already,” Anita Pefley said before the unveiling of the mural of her daughter, who passed away 17 years ago. Elysia was 11 years old when she died of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in March 1996.
Close to 100 people came out for the event Friday night at Gonzo!! Art Studio in Roseville. Certainly many more were there in spirit, including former Red Wings players Steve Yzerman and Keith Primeau, both of whom had spoken with Pefley earlier to wish her well at the re-dedication.
Edward “Gonzo” Stross first painted Elysia on the side of his building at the busy intersection of Gratiot and Utica roads several years ago when he heard about the little girl whose courage could (and often did) render big, burly men on skates who get violent for a living into tender, emotional teddy bears.
But the elements, combined with the façade of a 140-year-old building, had long since destroyed the image of the little girl. Stross, who has a reputation in the city of Roseville for championing the underdog (the studio is a popular hang out for the homeless), did not have the funds to restore the mural.
That’s when Elysia’s uncle, Rick Pefley, spearheaded a series of fundraisers at the studio, deejaying and performing music, ultimately raising about $1,200.
“I was like a king in the paint store,” says Stross. “I was able to get superior paint and perfect colors.” Stross spent about two weeks on a scaffolding, and then it was time to remove the white curtain for the big reveal of the 25-by-20 foot rendering.
Stross guided a handful of family members to climb the steep back steps to the roof of the studio where a floodlight cast its beam on the east wall of the building. A crowd gathered in the parking lot below. Many of them were childhood friends of Elysia’s, now in the their late 20s with kids of their own straddled on their hips and in strollers.
Earlier, Anita Pefley said of them, “Every day I still hear from one of those girls. I would not have been able get through it without them.”
Stross held one corner of the curtain and motioned for Anita Pefley to grab another. “Really?” she said, tentatively. No matter how much time had passed, to see your baby in living color and illuminated on a city wall the size of a billboard was unnerving.
“Ready?” Stross said. “One two three!” And down came the covering. “Ooooh!” the crowd swooned in reverence and then let loose with whistles and heartfelt applause. Rick Pefley stood back and marveled at the likeness.
“God must have really needed her,” he says. “Because she sure was a bright light.”
Anita Pefley took it all in, the lush golden hair, the eyes that look right at you and the angels wings painted red in honor of the hockey team she insists extended her daughter’s life by a couple years, if not more.
Elysia first complained of pain in her leg in 1991. The second-grader at St. Angela Elementary School had been performing with her dance troupe in the “Nutcracker” ballet in the Fox Theatre. By January 1992, doctors told her parents Elysia would not last a year.
“She defied all predictions and did ‘Nutcracker’ for four more years,” her mother says. “Bald as could be.”
She met Red Wings’ Captain Yzerman when he was visiting sick kids at St. John’s Hospital. He was smitten. Soon she was a regular at Wings games, and the whole team adopted her. She got regular Zamboni rides; the family even attended away games. Elysia was a special guest at Primeau’s wedding. On nights when Elysia was too weak to walk to her parents’ car after games, Primeau would carry her in his arms.
A few months before she died, Yzerman invited Elysia to the annual March of Dimes sports banquet at the Fox Theatre where he was to receive the honor of Michigan Athlete of the Year. At the microphone, he stopped midway through his acceptance remarks and asked Elysia to join him on the stage.
“This is somebody pretty special to me, a good friend of mine,” Yzerman said. “You talk about strength and courage. Elysia is probably the strongest person — most courageous person — I know. And I am proud to be her friend.”
Obviously proud to play a part in keeping Elysia’s memory alive, Stross said he never did get the chance to meet her. “But, you know I had quite a few conversations with her up there while I was working,” he says. “There was one point, while I was painting her eyes where — honest to God — it felt like she was winking at me. It’s a magical painting, it really is.”
Without skipping a beat, Elysia mother’s says: “Well, she was a magical little girl.”