By Michael Miner

The Game of the Name

Said Bonnie (Fitzgerald) McGrath,

After carefully doing the math,

“They’re more likely to swear in

A daughter of Erin

Than Innsbruck or Salzburg or Bath.”

Bonnie McGrath, who’s Jewish, traces her roots to Austria and England. Wrong roots. When she decided to run for circuit-court judge she faced a hard choice. She could spend a fortune she didn’t have to buy name recognition. Or, said Mike Lavelle, the former election-board chairman she hired for his worldly wisdom, she could buy a new name.

Bonnie Fitzgerald McGrath would look beautiful on a ballot, Lavelle told her.

She’s always been fairly nonchalant about her name. She’s listed in the phone book as Bonnie McGrath, Bonnie Taman, and Bonnie Owens, allowing old friends from every point in time to find her. So Benita “Bonnie” Carol Taman Owens McGrath–the first a given name she’s never used, the second a nickname, and the two at the end acquired from husbands, one an ex–decided to go even longer. What the hell.

“I didn’t change the ethnicity of my name,” McGrath told me. “My name’s been Bonnie McGrath for 16 years. What [Lavelle] was concerned about was the length of my name. The length of a name attracts votes. And he likes the name Fitzgerald. This thing that candidates do is a dirty little secret in our legal fraternity.”

Not so secret, actually. McGrath knows who the others are, including a “Fitzgerald” swept onto the bench by a two-to-one margin after getting clobbered in his first race as a Smith. Chicago Lawyer keeps score, and this winter McGrath figured in the roundup Abdon Pallasch writes every time there’s a judicial election. In January, R. Bruce Dold made hay in the Tribune.

Bonnie Fitzgerald McGrath wrote back at once and flashed her Irish temper. “If catchy names attract votes, I owe it to myself. I want to win,” said her letter, which the Tribune published. “It is ironic that Mr. Dold takes Lavelle…to task for knowing ‘how to put one over on the voters.’ By helping candidates such as myself, he helps to open up the field of winners, taking power away from those ‘who kiss the wingtips’ of political hacks.”

McGrath told me, “I’ve talked openly about it. I’ve written about it. I’ve told the voters of Cook County what I did and why. The others are the ones who weren’t honest, and they’re getting a pass. And I changed my name legally. I appeared before the honorable Aaron Jaffe. He said, ‘What is the reason for the change?’ I said, ‘Political reasons.’ He laughed.”

If plain old Bonnie McGrath rings a bell it’s because under that name she’s a freelance writer who has contributed to the Reader. For three years she wrote a weekly column in the Tribune’s WomaNews section. She entered law school in 1991, when she was 40 years old, and since she began practicing, she’s written columns for the Illinois Bar Journal, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, and the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois newsletter.

“I thought the one thing I had was name recognition,” she said. “And based on the scuttlebutt I’ve heard, Bonnie McGrath is a good ballot name. So when Mike Lavelle said, ‘It’s not good enough–you’ll have to expand it,’ I was quite surprised, to say the least. My mother said, ‘Why not simply Bonnie Carol McGrath? Bonnie Carol McGrath is pretty Irish too.’ There’s something Mike Lavelle likes about the name Fitzgerald. He’s very emotional about that name. Why, I don’t know. Like I say, he is a political scientist. It’s possible there have been studies done.”

Yes, but…

“I don’t think it has anything to do with ethics or morals,” McGrath went on. “I hate to say it’s the voters’ fault–it isn’t their fault. How are they supposed to get information about the candidates? I can’t send out 150,000 pieces of literature. Nobody has that kind of money running for judge–who isn’t affiliated with a political party.”

The way McGrath explained it, being elected a circuit-court judge requires crossing certain thresholds. She’d thought Bonnie McGrath was a threshold name, but Lavelle told her Bonnie Fitzgerald McGrath reached a higher threshold. Lavelle also told her to enter the Republican primary, so that’s what she did–though once she’d spent several years as a Democratic election judge. Another year she was a Republican election judge.

She analyzed her opponent in the primary. His name is Thomas J. Kolodz. “I’ve gotten used to it, and I think it’s fine now,” McGrath said. “But the conventional wisdom in this area would say it’s not a particularly attractive name.”

Over on the Democratic side there are four candidates. “The first guy on the ballot is a sitting judge,” McGrath said, “which is a pretty good threshold. And it’s an excellent name.” It’s James Patrick McCarthy. “Number two is a woman–that’s a threshold.” Rosemary Grant Higgins. “Number three is Laurence Dunford, the party guy. That’s not the kind of name that would attract votes. And number four is a woman, a nice name.” Mary Ellen Cloherty. “They all have something going for them.”

McGrath did the sharp thing, throwing her hat in several rings and leaving it in the one she liked best. “You make deals with people. I filed in four races, and I got out of three. Two of the races I was in had women and multiple people. I knew the two women were going to stay in because this was the only race they were in. They had no choice. I hated to run against another woman because of sisterhood and so forth. In the other two races I was running against a man, and in one of the races Mike had done some work for one of the guys. That would have put him in a bad spot had I gotten a challenge. Mike was not so hot on my staying in that one. That was against a guy named Don Sampen, which is not a particularly good name. He also, coincidentally, has a column in the Law Bulletin, but he’s on page six. Mine is on page three.”

I asked her who she’d like to run against in November if she whips Kolodz next month in the primary.

“Namewise, of course Larry Dunford. But Larry has a very nice background. And he’s a very nice guy. Plus he has the Democrats’ backing. That could be difficult. Of the other three, of course Mary Ellen and James have the best names. And Rosemary has a nice name too. James Patrick McCarthy must have some clout or he wouldn’t have been appointed. Rosemary seems to be a very aggressive campaigner. Mary Ellen Cloherty I haven’t seen around at all. I don’t know. I don’t think any of them will be easy to beat.”

The shrewd analysis I needed now would have been Mike Lavelle’s. But he was in Ireland.

Holy Cow! He’s Gone

Born in Saint Louis and therefore a Saint Louis fan, I grew up mistaking Harry Caray for the voice of the Cardinals. Years later I knew better. After he’d effortlessly become the voice of the White Sox and then the Cubs, I understood that Caray was actually the voice of baseball. A ball game described by anyone else sounded inauthentic. It sounded dubbed. And a game without his voice-over seemed a shadow of itself–which is why Harry Caray fans by the hundreds brought their portable radios to the ballpark.

The death of Caray affected most poignantly that unstudied swath of Chicago’s population brought here by the self-selecting processes of domestic migration. Saint Louisans have been beating a path north along I-55 for decades, and for such as we, Caray was simply the noisiest and most notorious of our number. He’d been present our entire lives, and when he died and Chicago mourned I certainly wasn’t alone in thinking, “But you never really knew him!”

What survived of Caray to the very end was his sense of joy. Though other sports might excite us more, baseball is uniquely joyful. Poets and essayists tell us this, but so do the grins on boys sitting by their dads, each stripped to the belt in the bleachers. Yet to remember Caray only as baseball’s happy warrior is to sell him short. In the off-seasons of his youth, before his tongue turned thick, he worked University of Missouri football and Saint Louis University basketball games and made them thrilling. Any sport he called he galvanized.

He was inimitable. Yet every kid in Saint Louis had a version of his “Holy cow!” to yell across the sandlot when a teammate backhanded a screamer, and might holler a “There she goes!” as a fly ball sailed beyond the right fielder. One of baseball’s glorious franchises, the Cardinals didn’t win a pennant between 1946 and 1964 and for most of those years were a very ordinary team. But up in the booth Caray kept greatness alive. He was joined there for a stretch by Joe Garagiola and Jack Buck, and all three are now in the Hall of Fame. A story I’ve heard so often that by now I’m sure I was listening when it happened has Caray’s attention drifting late in a doubleheader to a couple making out down in the stands. “I think I’ve figured out their system,” he told Garagiola. “He kisses her on the strikes and she kisses him on the balls.” And then, for once, save for Garagiola’s strangled giggling, there was utter silence.

As a boy I lived a thousand miles away, up in the Canadian Shield, where there was only Caray’s voice, a sort of aural magic lantern, to make baseball real. The night of my eighth-grade graduation, a photographer assembled the prizewinners for a picture for the local paper. But the kid who’d received the literature award from the International Order of the Daughters of the Empire was nowhere to be found. It was a clear night and the Cardinals were playing, and I’d run home to my radio, to the faint rising and falling of Caray’s raspy voice. For half a century, starry nights and baseball networks carried that voice across America. When Caray died radio stations in at least two cities dedicated themselves to his memory. On WGN I heard contemporaries mourn him. On Saint Louis’s KMOX, from which Caray was banished 29 years ago, the calls came in from Nebraska, from Indiana, from an old man in Mississippi, from everywhere people remembered.

News Bites

In January I wrote about a New York filmmaker, Tim Marback, who turned to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations for justice after the Chicago Tribune refused to publish his mother’s death notice the way he wanted it. Marback considers himself married in spirit and ceremony, if not under the letter of Illinois law, to his business partner, Steven Hillyer, and he’d asked the Tribune to follow its usual style with spouses by listing them among the survivors simply as “Timothy (Steven).” This the Tribune was unwilling to do.

This month the commission dismissed Marback’s complaint without a hearing. “The Commission finds that the Tribune’s publication of death notices is a service provided to the general public and so is covered by the language of the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance,” said its ruling. “However, regulation of the content of death notices would unconstitutionally infringe upon the Tribune’s First Amendment right to a free press and so is outside the CHRO’s definition of public accommodation.”

Doug Dobmeyer publishes an on-line newsletter called Poverty Issues. Now he’s produced a booklet containing interviews on poverty issues with three of the four Democratic candidates for governor: John Schmidt, Roland Burris, and Glenn Poshard. Dobmeyer says the fourth candidate, Jim Burns, “agreed to do it, but it never happened.” Unless you’re of a mind that the poor will always be with us so forget them, you’re apt to find the candidates’ views pretty interesting. The booklet’s a dollar and can be ordered by calling 773-338-9825.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bonnie McGrath photo by Peter Barreras; Harry Caray photo by Kesh Sorensen.