1951 was a great year for Christmas in Chicago, especially if you were a five-year-old kid at Columbus School on the west side. Regular snowfall that year started right after Halloween, and holiday decorations in many windows went up early, along with rope putty to seal out some of the cold.
At Columbus, teachers in grades K through 8 had their students working in unspoken competition to put up the best Christmas displays, and soon every hallway was filled with color. Outside the school, however, there was only one special sign of the season: At the back of the building, near the top of the ancient four-story red-brick wing with the gothic entrance that once faced Augusta Boulevard, someone had placed a big lighted star in the east window, an object of wonder to kids from the early grades who spent recess in the small playground on that side of the school.
Our Miss Flavin, in her first year as a kindergarten teacher, had the difficult task of trying to keep 40 children from fighting or eating library paste, as she watched us cut and string garlands of construction paper. One busy morning, when she needed someone to deliver an envelope to the principal’s office across the hall, she deputized me and a kid named Raymond for the job. Armed with a hall pass, how did we repay her trust? Of course, we walked three flights up and a half-block east, taking a minor detour to see that magical star on the other side of the school. We knew she wouldn’t miss us.
Walking as quietly as we could across creaking floors through the wainscotted hallways of the old wing, we climbed up wooden stairwells until finally reaching the giant electric star at the top, where we stood looking out the window at the snow-covered playground and the traffic along Augusta, until somebody called up to us: “Hey, you boys. You come down here.” Turning to look, we saw our school janitor at the bottom of the steps, a man with a gray mustache who always wore a Cubs hat as he pushed a broom, sometimes quietly singing Italian songs as he worked.
“Who’s your teacher?” he asked, and when we told him, he ordered us to walk back with him to the kindergarten, where Miss Flavin and the principal stood waiting. As they thanked the custodian for finding us, Miss Flavin looked down sternly, and told us to say “Thank you, Mr. Cavarretta.” Then, once the principal and janitor left, she gave us a mild reprimand, along with some useful information: “You know, boys, Mr. Cavarretta’s son is a baseball player,” she said. “He plays for the Cubs.”
This information didn’t mean much to me at the time, but the following summer, as I watched my first-ever game at Wrigley Field, I heard my dad say that Phil Cavarretta was one of his favorite players and, when he pointed him out to me as old #44 put himself in as a pinch hitter late in the game, I was eager to tell my father that Phil worked at my school. With the logic of a six-year old, I tried to convince him that the player rounding first on a hit up the middle was the same man who swept the hallways at Columbus, but when my dad grimaced, shook his head, and lit up a Lucky at this news, I knew it was time to stop talking, watch the game, and follow the Cubs.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long after this mix-up that I began to understand baseball, and by the spring of 1954, when news broke that the talented Mr. Wrigley had fired Cavvy from his job as Cubs player-manager, I had no doubt why everyone at Columbus School was upset. Later, when Phil signed to play for the White Sox, I even temporarily changed my team allegiance. One day that spring, waiting in line by the boiler room for recess to start, I saw our school custodian – Phil's dad – standing next to me, and I had to ask: “Mr. Cavarretta, when are you going to get a White Sox hat?” He made a face and shook his head no. True to his word, when I left Columbus in 1957, he was still wearing a Cubs cap.
So, to Papa Joe Cavarretta and his son Phil, to Miss Mary Ceil Flavin and, of course, to my Dad, I say thanks for helping me see the lights on the road to Cubdom: Red and Blue forever!