Yes, Vir­ginia: Ma­tri­arch turns 97, and what a ride it has been

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BEARS - By Tim Ban­non and Kori Ru­more Sources: Tri­bune re­ports, Drexel Univer­sity, Chicago Bears, nfl.com, “Halas by Halas: The Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Ge­orge Halas.”

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.”

AN­TO­NIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

ED FEENEY/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Ge­orge Halas with his daugh­ter, Vir­ginia McCaskey, at a Bears-Pack­ers game in 1968.

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