Former longtime Tribune sports reporter Don Pierson is among the few who have spent hours with Chicago Bears principal owner Virginia 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.
He answered questions about McCaskey, who turns 100 years old today, in a phone interview Wednesday. (This conversation has been edited for clarity.)
When did you start working at the Tribune?
As my granddaughter would say, way back in the last century — 1967.
And when did you start covering the Bears?
It wasn’t really a beat in the 1960s — nobody covered them every single day like they do now. The sports editor would go out to practice on Monday or Tuesday and write a couple of feature stories then go to the game. And it wasn’t until 1971 or 1972, that I became the first full-time beat person. I was there every day no matter what. …
Every Monday after games, the coaches starting with Jim Dooley who succeeded Halas, they would invite the reporters — and there were only 4 or 5 of us — they’d invite us over to their offices and watch and dissect the game film. That didn’t last very long, but that’s the way it was in the early 1970s.
How was the team during those years?
Pretty bad. They were chaotically organized, their structure wasn’t really attuned to the way it is now. They missed their turn in the draft, for example, in 1969, and went past the time limit. So they really didn’t have the kind of personnel that you had to have to compete. That was after Halas retired for the fourth and final time.
He really hadn’t groomed people, hadn’t built the management structure to compete in the ‘60s and ‘70s so they fell on hard times. They were really bad in the ‘70s. When his son, George Halas Jr., talked him into bringing in Jim Finks, he had to twist his old man’s arm in order to do that. And that’s what got the Bears into the modern age.
I’m amazed, going through the Tribune’s archives, how many times you’ve been able to interview Virginia McCaskey, who is notoriously private. Do you remember the first time you met her?
Let me go back even further. If you read Halas’ autobiography, in it he wrote that he was stunned when she was born. He was stunned because he assumed it would be George Halas Jr. That’s the way it was 100 years ago — you assumed your first child was going to be a boy.
Virginia was always happy to play second fiddle. Her father really didn’t embrace her husband, so the McCaskey family was not an integral part of Bears management.
When did I interview her? I knew her socially and talked to her and her husband (Edward McCaskey) mostly informally because they weren’t really connected to the Bears. But when her brother (George “Mugs” Halas Jr.) died of a heart attack in 1979, that changed everything.
(Halas) didn’t even tell Virginia he had cancer. So, 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. She cherishes that legacy and she’s done a terrific job of trying to maintain that legacy. As long as she’s alive, the Bears will never be sold because of her very, very strong conviction that she is holding onto that legacy of her father, who virtually started the National Football League. And you can understand her position.
So many things had to go wrong in order for Virginia to be put in this position. As you mentioned, her younger brother died from a heart attack in 1979, then Halas died in 1983 of cancer. What did you make of it when it was announced that she was going to be the head of the organization?
I think it was probably one of sympathy. Everybody knew of the rather awkward position she was put in and recognized that she didn’t really have much expertise or experience. She had an interest as a fan, but she didn’t have the background in business or sports.
She tried to get Jim Finks, who was the general manager that drafted the 1985 Bears, to stay and mentor her older sons, but Jim didn’t want to do that. So, he resigned. And then, eventually, Virginia made Michael (McCaskey) the president. I mean, Halas was never going to groom him or the rest of the McCaskey family to take over the family business. So, Virginia and the family get blamed for a lot of things that weren’t really under their control.
She never though she would be the head of the organization, right? I mean, she was mom to 11 kids and was happy to be a fan?
Is there any validity to fans’ concerns today that the McCaskeys have made mistakes over the years because they didn’t have experience?
She would admit to you that mistakes have been made. She had to replace her own son, which showed her resolve and I think her strength.
They were sort of fish out of water when they had to take over the Bears. She’ll tell you that to this day. When Dan Pompei and I did the 100th anniversary book a few years ago, we talked with her for 10-12 hours. She told us she never expected to be in the position she was and in that position for, what, 40 years?
She seems like an honest woman. What’s she like in person?
Very dignified. I think it was Paul Tagliabue, former commissioner, who anointed her First Lady of the NFL and I think that’s apropos. She’s very well respected around the league. She doesn’t wield power like a lot of owners had to do. Maybe a little stubborn in that she’s clung to family and hasn’t hired too many people from outside the family. Stubbornness was probably one of her father’s most prominent traits.
What was the sense in the city and among the people covering the team when she became leader of the organization?
It’s interesting. Even though we all knew she was the owner, she never called herself chairman of the board or president. She was always secretary. Now, nothing happened that she didn’t approve of, but I don’t ever sense that she was being dictatorial in any way.
She’s had a lot of difficult thing happen in her life. (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.)
How has that affected her?
She’s a very, very religious person who goes to Mass every day. And she’s so stoic in that regard. She relies on her faith and that’s genuine and sincere and private. So, I think she’s not an at least outwardly emotional person.
How do you think she will celebrate her 100th birthday?
You know, it’s funny. Usually, during a game broadcast, they’ll show her in her box at Soldier Field. I don’t watch every minute of every game any more, but I don’t recall seeing that recently. I’m always surprised that she goes to as many away games as she has. So, I think it will be a quiet celebration this year.
I read your stories about Super Bowl XX that included quotes from Virginia. It seemed like it was the happiest she’s ever been. What was that like for her?
Well, it was vindication in a lot of ways. You know, as soon as she took over the team people started saying she should sell it. In a way, it was vindication that the McCaskeys stuck with the team and vindication for her dad in hiring Mike Ditka. It was vindication for Michael McCaskey, who was club president. So it was really the high point of the year.
You’ve captured so many of her memories in the “Chicago Bears Centennial Scrapbook,” but did you ever think about writing a book just about Virginia?
She wouldn’t allow it. I remember George (McCaskey), the president now, setting up our interviews with her. She had to be convinced that the book was not about her, and we had to structure the book so that it wasn’t a book about Virginia McCaskey. I remember George saying that it would mortify her.
She’s not a real raconteur. We would have loved it if we sat in her living room and she said, “Let me tell you a story about this,” but she never did that. We had to pry everything out of her, but she was very cordial and forthcoming when she got onto a subject.
What was the Bears100 celebration in 2019, like for Virginia?
I think she was really energized by seeing that many players. I remember her saying one time that she sort of regretted that the management had gone from 30 people at Halas Hall to 300-400. She regrets that she doesn’t know them all personally.
But she really enjoyed seeing the players because she has personal memories about just about every single player that’s come through the organization.
I’m sure the Bears will never have a celebration where they bring that many people together — that will never happen again.
And you have to remember the team was coming off of a great season, too, so everything looked rosier.
You mentioned earlier that as long as she’s alive, then Virginia will never sell the team. What do you think happens down the road?
One of the reasons I retired from the Tribune 15 years ago is so I wouldn’t have to write that story.