Yes, Virginia: Matriarch turns 97, and what a ride it has been
Virginia Halas McCaskey would have preferred a Bears playoff game for her 97th birthday on Sunday. But she should enjoy her milestone anyway, for she is living a remarkable life. Here are eight things to know about the principal owner of the Bears.
1. Virginia McCaskey’s parents were surprised their firstborn was a girl.
“I had assumed — and so had Min (Minnie, his wife) — that the new arrival would be George Stanley Halas Jr.,” the founder and owner of the Bears admitted in the 1979 book, “Halas by Halas: The Autobiography of George Halas.” “I already had visions of drawing my son into the thick of the Bears. We didn’t even have a name for a girl. After some searching we decided on Mary Barbara, for her two grandmothers. But my brother Frank already had appropriated those names for his daughter.
“I filled in the baby’s certificate of birth, leaving the name blank. Many years later, upon getting a copy of her birth certificate for a passport application, my daughter discovered that the name we gave her — Virginia Marion — had been inserted in pencil.
“She also learned that despite my wholehearted devotion to the Bears, I had not yet been sure the world would respect as father’s occupation the designation of ‘football club owner, manager, coach and player.’ I had written in the more conservative career of ‘civil engineer.’ ”
2. Red Grange used her to sneak past fans.
Pro football was struggling to build an audience, so George Halas, Red Grange and the Bears went on a 19-game, 66-day barnstorming tour to drum up interest during the winter of 1925.
And 3-year-old Virginia McCaskey went along for the ride.
“We made the first part of the tour with my mother and her sister, my Aunt Lil, to help along,” she told the Tribune. “And after the games in Florida, I think mom said: ‘This is it (for me), you can go on to California.’ ”
As interest built, Grange became a celebrity, and fans thronged to see the Bears when the team’s train pulled into towns.
If Grange wanted to avoid the crowds, he’d pick up Virginia.
“When Red Grange would get off the train there were so many people waiting to see him they decided I could be his camouflage,” McCaskey said in the NFL film “A Lifetime of Sundays.” “If he wore a hat and carried me off the train, people wouldn’t recognize him. That got him through the crowd.”
3. What she remembers from the 1st NFL championship game: ‘the odor.’
In 1932, when she was 9, McCaskey attended the NFL’s first championship game at Chicago Stadium, where the Bears beat the Spartans of Portsmouth, Ohio, 9-0.
Nine decades later, McCaskey didn’t hesitate when asked for her memory of the game, which was indoors atop 8 inches of dirt spread over concrete.
“Just the odor,” she told the Tribune. “It was almost overwhelming because the circus had just left town.”
4. She went to Drexel University — and majored in secretarial studies.
McCaskey enrolled at Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1939 when she was 16 and lived with her Uncle Walter, who was the school’s football, baseball and basketball coach.
“The only place my dad would permit me to go to school was to go live with Uncle Walter and his family,” she told the university. “I now realize what a blessing it was to share my freshman year with my family.”
She majored in secretarial studies, a department the school started in 1914. Her plans were to become her father’s secretary.
Her sophomore year she met her future husband, Edward McCaskey, who was attending the University of Pennsylvania. They married in 1943 and moved to Des Plaines, where they raised 11 children. 5. She never expected to be the boss.
Virginia McCaskey was one of Halas’ two children. Her younger brother, George Jr., known as “Mugs,” was expected to take over the team after their father died or turned it over to his heirs.
“I just assumed he would be the one to take over for my dad, and that put me in a great position,” she told the Tribune. “I would be able to enjoy all the perks and not have any of the problems. But God had other plans for all of us.”
George Halas Jr. died in 1979, four years before his father, leaving his sister in charge of the team.
“Dad finally got around to his estate planning,” Virginia McCaskey said in “A Lifetime of Sundays.” “There was a small paragraph that ‘in matters relating to football operations, Virginia would have the final word.’ And to me that was his vote of confidence.”
George Halas died in 1983. Virginia McCaskey now controls 80% of Bears stock. On the team’s website, she is listed as “secretary,” although the formal title is corporate secretary.
“She has set such a great example of how owners of professional teams should conduct themselves, with a quiet dignity and a love of their teams,” John Mara, president of the New York Giants, told the Tribune. “Too many of us have not followed that example.” 6. That fur coat has a history.
When McCaskey received the George Halas Trophy after the Bears won the NFC title in January 2007, she was wearing the same fur coat her mother wore when the Bears won the 1963 NFL title.
“That gives you an idea of how important tradition and this legacy is to her,” former Tribune Bears reporter Don Pierson said in the NFL film about McCaskey.
When asked what she recalls from that celebration, she said: “On the platform, everybody was smiling and laughing and singing the Bears fight song. And it was the way things should be.
“I never felt the cold at all.”
7. She removed her son as team president.
During a news conference on Feb. 10, 1999, Virginia McCaskey named a new president and chief executive officer for the Bears — by ousting her eldest son, Michael, from the position. Ted Phillips, the first non-Halas or McCaskey family member to hold the title, still is team president.
“She wielded the big stick inherited from her father with the same toughness she hides so well under her reserved smile,” the Tribune’s Don Pierson wrote.
Michael wasn’t removed from the organization. Instead he took over his 79year-old father, Ed’s, job of board chairman. Virginia said in a 1999 Tribune story that she hoped “that Mike will be able to make other good contributions to the club and will be available for Ted when Ted wants to consult him.” Michael retired in 2011.
8. No more Honey Bears: That was also her decision.
The Bears formed the Honey Bears cheerleading/dancing team in 1975.
But Virginia McCaskey reportedly prevailed in having the group abolished when its contract expired after the 1985 season.
“Michael McCaskey said through (former Bears general manager) Jerry Vainisi: ‘The Bears want to get back to blood and guts football and get rid of the fluff,’ ” Cathy Core, the group’s founder and choreographer, told the Tribune. “I never once met with Michael McCaskey. He never once gave me the opportunity to meet with him. Everything was done through Jerry.”
“People give me credit for that, or blame,” Virginia McCaskey wrote in the Bears “Centennial Scrapbook.” “Michael came to me and said, ‘How would you feel about eliminating the Honey Bears?’ … To me, it was always a distraction.
“They weren’t really cheerleaders. It was past what goes on in high school and college situations. I always hope our fans would be football fans and interested in the team rather than the trimmings.”
George Halas with his daughter, Virginia McCaskey, at a Bears-Packers game in 1968.