Chicago Bears owner Virginia McCaskey — who turns 100 today — in her own words – The Denver Post


When Virginia Halas McCaskey graduated from Philadelphia’s Drexel University in 1943, with a degree in Secretarial Studies her aspiration was to work for one executive — her father George Halas, founder and owner of the Chicago Bears and the National Football League.

Eighty years later, McCaskey serves on the team’s board of directors as its Secretary. But make no mistake, she is the team’s principal owner. She’s also mother to 11 children and grandmother or great-grandmother to many more.

Today, she adds another chapter to her impressive biography — centenarian.

McCaskey was born on Jan. 5, 1923, making her about 3 years younger than the NFL itself.

Her life has been marked by tragedy, which unexpectedly accelerated her career trajectory and led a former league commissioner to call her the “First Lady of the NFL.”

Her mother, “Min,” died of a heart attack in 1966. The same ailment killed her younger brother, George “Mugs” Halas Jr., in 1979. Halas died in 1983 of cancer, never revealing his diagnosis to his only daughter. Virginia’s husband of 60 years, Edward W. McCaskey, died in 2003. She’s outlived two of her own children and one of her favorite Bears, Walter Payton.

Famously private, McCaskey rarely grants interviews and leads a modest life devoted to her faith, family and football.

Former longtime Tribune sports reporter Don Pierson is among the few who have spent hours with McCaskey, most recently recording her memories in the “Chicago Bears Centennial Scrapbook” written with Dan Pompei and published in 2019.

Pierson, who covered the Bears for the Tribune from the late 1960s through the team’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts in 2007′s Super Bowl XLI, says McCaskey takes her role as matriarch of the Bears seriously.

“Virginia and the McCaskey family inherited the Bears without any experience, without much background, without any expectation, without any real desire on Virginia’s part, but she’s made it her lifelong, solemn duty to do what she thinks her father would want her to do,” Pierson told me Wednesday. “She cherishes that legacy and she’s done a terrific job of trying to maintain that legacy.”

Does Pierson think McCaskey will ever sell the team her father established in Chicago?

“As long as she’s alive, the Bears will never be sold,” he said.

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Photo gallery: ‘Mama Bear’

Follow the team’s matriarch through the decades, as captured by Tribune photographers. See more photos.

‘When Red Grange would get off the train there were so many people waiting to see him they decided I could be his camouflage.’

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 McCaskey went along for the ride. Read more.

‘Just the odor. It was almost overwhelming because the circus had just left town.’

That’s McCaskey’s lasting memory from the 1932 NFL championship, which she watched at just 9 years old. In the throes of the Great Depression, to ensure paying customers showed up in subfreezing temperatures on Dec. 18, the game was played at Chicago Stadium — yes, indoors — atop 8 inches of dirt spread over concrete. Read more.

‘The only place my dad would permit me to go to school was to go live with Uncle Walter and his family.’

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. 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.

Ed and Virginia went to the 1942 NFL title game between the Bears and Washington Redskins with the intention of asking Papa Bear for permission to marry. The Bears were undefeated and big favorites.

“It was there I learned how much football meant to the Halas family,” Edward McCaskey recalled.

With the Bears about to lose 14-6, Ed noticed Virginia crying.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “It’s only a football game.”

“No,” Virginia answered. “Don’t you realize my father will never let us get married if the Bears lose?”

Sure enough, the two had to elope and chose Halas’ birthday, Feb. 2, 1943, for their marriage date.

“He wasn’t very happy about that,” McCaskey said.

They moved to Des Plaines, where they raised 11 children. Read more.

‘I probably live in the smallest house of any NFL executive, but that’s what Ed and I were comfortable doing.’

After living for 45 years in the same house in Des Plaines, the McCaskeys moved in 1994 to a ranch house a block away. Read more.

‘Even though it wasn’t against the Packers, it was the culmination of a championship season and my dad’s final championship.’

When a fan at the Bears100 Celebration Weekend in 2019, asked McCaskey what her favorite Wrigley Field game was, she quickly pointed to the 1963 championship game. Read more.

‘I just assumed he would be the one to take over for my dad, and that put me in a great position. 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.’

McCaskey’s younger brother, George Halas Jr., known as “Mugs,” died in 1979. Read more.

‘More than most people, he considered himself immortal.’

Halas died in 1983, leaving McCaskey in control of the Bears. She told the Tribune then that she and her father talked frequently about the future of the team during the last month of his life, but that there was a “gap” in their conversations that left some questions unanswered. Read more.

‘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.’

The Bears formed the Honey Bears cheerleading/dancing team in 1975. But McCaskey reportedly prevailed in having the group abolished when its contract expired after the 1985 season. Read more.

‘He is an excellent worker, yet seems to have more of a balance in his life. That’s not a criticism of my father. His dedication was just so total, and that’s why he was able to accomplish so much.’

Michael McCaskey, Virginia’s oldest child, took over the reins of the Chicago Bears from his grandfather George Halas in 1983 before the team achieved its greatest moment two years later. Read more.

  • Commentary: The Mike McCaskey most didn’t know — far away from Soldier Field

‘How would I characterize this team? I don’t think you can. You can’t put a label on it, and isn’t that part of the beauty of it?’

McCaskey had great respect for the 1985 Bears team, which won Super Bowl XX. “They’re all different, but they’re all together. That’s what’s so nice. And when they mention Dad on occasion, I hope it tells me they appreciate what he stood for, his values.” Read more.

‘I don’t look to be in the spotlight. I think it’s a man’s world as far as the Chicago Bears are concerned. I’m in the position I’m in because my dad trusted me and I just want to fulfill that trust.’

With one signature, McCaskey could make herself and her family rich beyond anything they can hope to earn from keeping the team. But money is not the motive. Read more.

  • Title IX turns 50: Meet 50 women in Illinois who have impacted sports on — and off — the field of play

‘You know when sad days are? When we lose games. Those are sad days.’

Ironically, it was Virginia McCaskey who announced in 1999, that her oldest son was stepping down as president to become chairman of the board. He remained in that role until 2011, when he was replaced by his brother George. Read more.

‘After Brian Piccolo died (in 1969), my husband Ed and I promised ourselves we wouldn’t be so personally involved with any of the players. We were able to follow that resolve until Walter Payton came into our lives.’

McCaskey gave a special tribute to Payton after his death from cancer in 1999. Read more.

‘I never felt the cold at all.’

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. Read more.

‘We’ve been working on that for a long time.’

In a 2007 interview, McCaskey said it is her hope and expectation that her children will continue to own the Bears and keep the Halas legacy alive forever. Read more.

‘Well, those socks don’t turn me on.’

The team needed to get McCaskey’s approval for the Bears’ 1936-inspired throwback uniform, but her initial reaction was lukewarm. Read more.

‘That’s why I don’t do this very often.’

It had already been a sentimental and intensely emotional weekend for the Bears owner, but when McCaskey was asked on the final day of the Bears100 Celebration Weekend in 2019, to describe George Halas and to pinpoint her fondest memories with her dad, she swallowed hard. Read more.

‘All the teams I’ve watched. All the miracles I’ve watched. I’m just very grateful. I can’t think of a better life.’

A documentary released as part of the NFL’s 100th season featured McCaskey and three other women from families that own teams. Read more.

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