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Faith, Family, Football

December 20, 2013

Philadelphia: 1939. Students sip soft drinks while big band music swings in the Great Court of the Drexel Institute of Technology’s Main Building. Young men and women dance beneath the A.J. Drexel bust. They wear corsages and boutonnieres. A conga line forms. Laughter fills the marble hall.

A Secretarial Studies major with a demure smile dances between beams of chandelier light. Her name is Virginia Halas and her greatest aspiration is to serve as her father’s secretary. And her father isn’t any father. He is George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears; a founding father of the National Football League.

Decades from now — long after Virginia and her husband, Edward McCaskey, have raised 11 children; after her father has been recognized as Chicago’s “Papa Bear”; she will be called on to do more than her share in the service of her father’s legacy. She will become the owner of Chicago’s most celebrated sports franchise. To other team owners, she will be known as the First Lady of the NFL. She will call all of it her “sacred duty.”

Today, Virginia Halas McCaskey doesn’t care much to talk business. It might be a franchise, but it’s personal — and she is proudly private when it comes to the team her father built. To Virginia Halas McCaskey, it’s all about three things, really: faith, family and football. And this trinity, innate in Halas children, 
cannot — can never be — divided.

When Mrs. McCaskey speaks of her time at Drexel, she speaks first of family. She arrived at age 16 with the stipulation that she live with her Uncle Walter, a Drexel sports legend in his own right, who served as the Institute’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 says. “I now realize what a blessing it was to share my freshman year with my family. It brought me closer to my five cousins. Uncle Walter was my godfather. Aunt Nan helped me to fit in with a family of seven.”

It was during her sophomore year, while living in the women’s dormitory, that she met her future husband, Edward McCaskey — who was attending the University of Pennsylvania on a Senatorial Scholarship. Ed was charming, handsome and funny. He sang in a band at local dance clubs. Soon, he’d set off to serve the Army with distinction in Europe.

The future Mrs. McCaskey was an active member of the Pi Sigma Gamma sorority, the Newman Club, the Pan-Hellenic Council and the Young Women Christian Association. Her senior graduation picture 
in the 1943 Lexard shows a beautiful woman with a confident gaze 
and her father’s unmistakable, dimpled chin. That same year, while her father served his second stint overseas with the United States Navy, his Chicago Bears won the NFL Championship and third league title in four years — establishing the team as a dynasty.

The McCaskeys married in 1943 and, soon after, began building a family of their own. A devoted wife, mother and Catholic, she 
put family first. Today, she speaks tenderly of Ed, who passed away in 2003.

“There is no one word to describe him,” she says. “We had 60 good years. They weren’t always easy. We had eight sons and three daughters. He used to call me ‘Laughing Girl’ because it was either laugh or cry. But it was all good.

“I think the thing that guided us in our married life was the 
fact that we thought that God was in charge, and I think He still is.”

Ed would wait 25 years to enter the family business — but by 1983 he worked his way up the ladder to serve as vice president, treasurer and a clear-voiced leader among the Halas clan.

Meanwhile, Mrs. McCaskey raised her children and took a back seat, resolute that the Bears were in capable hands. She followed every team her father fielded, though. Because it wasn’t just a franchise. It was family. And to Virginia Halas McCaskey, family came first.

George Halas died Oct. 31, 1983. His eldest son, George Jr., had long been deemed heir apparent, but had died of a sudden heart attack four years earlier. The future of the franchise hung in the balance. Only one thing was certain: the team would stay in the family.

The very next day, Virginia Halas McCaskey officially assumed ownership of the Chicago Bears. Ed became Chairman of the Board, a position he would pass on to their son Michael in 1999.

Mrs. McCaskey relied on her faith and her education to guide her through the loss of her father and the transition of ownership. She was thrust into the role of steward, or as she said in a 2007 interview, the “custodian” of a “tremendous legacy.” She has called it a “wonderful kind of burden.” She sure didn’t court it. But she didn’t push it away either.

“I realized that I was in that position because my dad had enough faith in me to make it possible,” she says. “I think we both knew how much the Bears meant to me.

“What Ed and Michael and I tried to do was work with [head coach] Mike Ditka and Jerry Vainisi [who replaced Jim Finks as Bears general manager in August 1983], people whom my dad had put in place. And do the best we could as far as the Chicago Bears were concerned.”

The press has suggested that Mrs. McCaskey’s handling of the team has been hands-off — that her husband and sons Michael (who served as president from 1983 until 1999 and as Chairman of the Board until 2011) and George (who is the team’s current board chairman) have steered the ship while she remained happy in 
the hull.

“I don’t look to be in the spotlight,” she said in a 1998 Chicago Tribune interview. “I think it’s a man’s world as far as the Chicago Bears are concerned.”

That she has avoided the press has only added grist to the mill. But Mrs. McCaskey has never felt the need to show her hand. Or to insert herself into the conversation. But make no mistake: When Virginia Halas McCaskey speaks, everyone listens.

“Happy in the hull? Are you kidding?” says her son, George. “She’s in the prow. She’s got the night watch. She’s looking for icebergs. With her at the helm, the seas are calmer, the storms less severe. She’s the guiding force behind the Bears, and everybody at Halas Hall — including the players — knows that and appreciates that. That’s why the goal of everybody here is to see her holding the Super Bowl trophy.”

While she travels to away games and owners meetings each year, she has taken a cue from her mother, Min, who found comfort far from the line of scrimmage.

“My mother was really in the background and stayed there happily. She was able to do that,” McCaskey says. “She was also a part of all of my father’s struggles. And I appreciate that now more than I ever did when I was growing up.”

Until 1983, Mrs. McCaskey’s focus was on raising children. Yet she came to appreciate and use her Drexel education when she took ownership of the Bears.

“It gave me some confidence and good feeling that I can 
handle this, or that I know how to find people who can handle this,” she says.

Mrs. McCaskey’s two-fold philosophy is austere yet profound, especially when you consider that it belongs to a woman who owns a franchise valued at $1.2 billion:

“I listen to as many people as possible,” she says. “And I pray 
a lot.”

Despite some lean seasons in the 1990’s — at the height of which there was hearsay that the team would be sold; a laughable idea to all who know Virginia Halas McCaskey — the Bears have benefitted from excellent leadership. With Mike Ditka at the helm, the Bears won Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots. Under head coach Lovie Smith, they defeated the New Orleans Saints to take home the 2006 NFC Championship trophy, which bears her father’s name. On that occasion, the First Lady of the NFL took to the field to receive the trophy while fans sang “Bear Down Chicago Bears.”

“It was glorious,” she says. “The only problem was we didn’t win the Super Bowl afterwards.”

Accolades have been showered on Virginia Halas McCaskey. Jerry Jones admitted that her very existence was the greatest influence on his choice to purchase the Dallas Cowboys. Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has called her an icon. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan has called the Chicago Bears the “ideal family business.” In 2009, Forbes named Virginia Halas McCaskey the fifth most powerful woman in sports.

Yet, for each tribute pointed to her, Virginia Halas McCaskey in turn points to her father. It isn’t so much modesty as loyalty — of a daughter to her dad, of a grateful recipient to her benefactor.

“If I had started the Chicago Bears and I had done everything that’s been done over all the years, then I might feel that I deserved some of those responses from people,” she says. “I am the daughter of George Halas.”

While she doesn’t care much to talk about accolades, Mrs. McCaskey glows when she talks about her family. She has 42 grandchildren and great-grandchildren (“over 60 counting spouses”). Each year the family holds a drawing to see which family members get to travel to away games (including the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl). For home games, there are two reserved suites at Soldier Field — one for family and another that the family rotates.

Each year, there is a two-day Bears family meeting, during which each generation is identified as a cohort — atoms of the legacy named according to their descent down the family line.

“We realized, especially when the lawyers were involved, that we needed some kind of shorthand way of identifying what we were talking about. So, my dad and mother are G1. My brother Ed and I are G2. Our children are G3. Their children are G4. And the great-grandchildren are G5.”

There is also a strict Buffett-esque employment policy for the family business. All family members must graduate from college and work outside of the organization for a minimum of five years, at which time you must be, according to Virginia Halas McCaskey, “almost overqualified” to work for the Bears.

At the age of nine, Virginia Halas attended the NFL’s very first championship game at Chicago Stadium. Her second-balcony ticket cost $1.25.

At 89, she has watched the NFL grow to a 32-team juggernaut that generates $8.3 billion in annual revenue. Yet, Mrs. McCaskey’s love for the Bears remains unchanged by money or the wrinkles of time. This does not happen often. Money can trump faith. Time can dull the memories that shape legacies. But not for Virginia Halas McCaskey. Not for a woman who, for 29 years, has served as the vigilant curator of a family dream in an industry dominated by men and money.

“When I do think about my father’s legacy, it is with gratitude and a great sense of responsibility,” she says. “It was all due to the effort and dedication of my parents that kept them involved in the Chicago Bears when other people were giving up. They persevered and we’re all enjoying the benefits of what they did.

“I still think it’s a man’s world,” she says. “But I like my little part of it.”

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