CHICAGO - It was to have been a time of joy and love, a time for family.

Late Thursday afternoon, Ralph Elliott, 79, drove to a Popeye's restaurant to pick up a large order of his favorite chicken for the Christmas Eve party that he and his wife had been hosting for their extended family for more than 50 years.

Shortly after, he lay mortally wounded in the restaurant's parking lot, shot in the face and back by a man who police said followed him out of the restaurant to his car and attempted to rob him.

"If he was hungry, [my husband] would have fed him; if he needed money, he would have given it to him," said Dolores Elliott, 75, of the man who killed her husband of 54 years.

Her husband, she said, was a kind man, who loved his family unconditionally and helped others whenever he could.

The area tradesmen, she said, "all knew Mr. Elliott. He was very dignified, very quiet, very friendly."

Police said this morning that Elliott had already picked up his large order of chicken at the Popeye's about 4 p.m. and was starting to get into his car when a man who had been in the restaurant followed him out, and approached with the intent of robbing him. A brief scuffle between the two men ensued, said Chicago Police Officer Gabrielle Lesniak, a department spokeswoman.

The robber shot Elliott in the face and shoulder and ran east toward Drexel Boulevard. Witnesses at the restaurant saw where he went and directed police, Lesniak said. The suspect was arrested several minutes later. Police said that they recovered a gun.

Charges against the suspect are pending.

Elliott and his wife were childless but had a large family that included seven nieces and nephews, his wife said. One of those nephews is a Chicago police officer.

"Christmas Eve is our extended family gathering at my house. We were going to spend great time with the people that he loved," Delores Elliott said, adding that her husband took great pride in decorating their Christmas tree and wrapping gifts.

A graduate of Tilden High School, on the South Side, Elliott then went on to University of Illinois at Chicago when it still was located at Navy Pier. He worked 38 years before retiring about 16 years ago as an executive with the Illinois Department of Employment Security, his widow said. The couple met there at work.

In retirement, he was an avid chess player. "If he couldn't find a chess partner, he'd play advanced chess with the computer," she said. He liked to fish off Hilton Head, S.C., one of his favorite vacation spots. He was also a bowler.

"This has just torn his family apart," she said. "You always understand death, but not in violence.

"Whoever did this killing has got to pay for this. Violence is destruction at every level. While I have lost my husband, he [the suspect] too has lost.

"He's destroyed everything. . . . On the eve of the birth of Christ you [the suspect] took a man's life. That's senseless. At some point, violence has to stop and love will take over.

"At this point I'm still in shock. My Christian belief is that God will take care. I will put my faith in God, and whatever that is it will be in God's divine order.

"I can't hold hatred. My faith said I must move forward with love and understanding."