The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, Aug. 10, 2014
In honor of Illinois football Fan Appreciation Day today — autographs start at 4 p.m. — we asked a few familiar faces to tell us about the first time they hit up a celebrity for their signature.
Pastor, St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Urbana
“When Jackie Kennedy started raising money for the JFK Library, I had saved my allowance and taped four quarters between two index cards and sent them to her. I included a letter telling her that President Kennedy was my hero and I was sorry for her loss.
“I suppose the thank you I received may have have been signed by an autopen, but I was convinced that Mrs. Kennedy had hand-signed the note for an earnest fourth-grader.”
Owner and fouder, C-U’s Corson Music
“I was in the lower level of Carson’s at Lincoln Square, shopping for a deep fryer as a Christmas gift for my mom. The clerk told me they did not have any. A voice next to me said: ‘They don’t have any deep fryers?’
“I looked at him and it was Red Skelton. He was in town for a performance somewhere — maybe the Assembly Hall — and had a young guy carrying packages for him. I’m assuming he was staying at Jumer’s. I told him I watched his show as a kid, and he gave me his autograph. A very nice man.”
Former Illinois basketball player, assistant coach
“Nate Archibald was my favorite player when I was growing up. He led the NBA in scoring and assists one season, and I believe is still the only player to do so. I had a wall in my room with his poster on it and every action picture of him that I could find in Sports Illustrated or Sporting News.
“I saw him play once and waited after the game to get his autograph out by the team bus. I had a Sports Illustrated cover of him that I asked him to sign. He looked at me and said, ‘I ain’t signing nothing.’ That hit me hard, so I looked him back in the eye and told him, ‘Well, you ain’t my man any more.’ I got home and tore the poster and all the pictures off my wall. I replaced him with Walt Frazier.”
JUDI (FORD) NASH
Miss America 1969, UI Class of 1973
“The one I have the most vivid recollection of was Bob Hope. I met him when I was 1967 Miss Illinois County Fair and he was performing at the Illinois State Fair. I was 17 and very nervous.
“They had to pull some strings just to get me backstage to his dressing room area. We took a photo together, and then he gave me an autograph. He was extremely nice, and I was quite impressed. I think I still have that autograph in a scrapbook somewhere, although I’m not sure exactly where.”
Grace Lutheran Church, Champaign
“It was the summer of ’61. I was 12 years old, and attending my first MLB game at old Comiskey Park in Chicago. I’m embarrassed to admit, though originally from the south suburbs, I was a big Yankees fan, and I adored Mickey Mantle. Mickey was signing autographs near the Yankees’ dugout but the line was discouragingly long. So I looked for some other Yankee, and I found No. 9. The Yankees didn’t put names on their uniforms.
“Somebody told me that was Roger Maris. Fine, I thought. He’d had a good 1960 for the Yanks, and he and Mickey were challenging Babe Ruth’s home run record, but everybody knew, if anybody did it, it would be the Mick. Whatever. That’s why Maris didn’t have a long line of autograph seekers. In fact, he didn’t look like he wanted to sign autographs. But he took my program and pen without a word, signed it, gave it back and walked away.
“I wish I could say that 53-year-old autographed program has a special place in my home. Truth is, I tossed it somewhere in my very messy bedroom and forgot about until Maris broke the record. Sadly, in her zeal to bring order out of my chaos, my mother had thrown it away. Such is life.”
Director, Champaign School of Music
“The first autograph I ever got was Santa Claus’. I was around 8. Santa was making a visit to our church and I went to sit on his lap, tell him what was on my wish list and get his autograph. There was something very familiar about him and, being somewhat of a skeptic even at 8, I hung around to make sure he actually did drive away in his reindeer sleigh.
“What I discovered scarred me forever. After he was done ho, ho, hoing and bouncing all the kids on his lap, he left the stage and I followed him. He disappeared into an empty room and a few minutes later my father emerged. I went in the room, didn’t see Santa Claus. I went outside and didn’t see him flying off. I went to my dad and asked him what he knew about the disappearance of Santa.
“In that moment, my childish hopes and dreams were detonated. Santa Claus was really my dad.”
Superintendent, Urbana schools
“In June of 1975, my family and I went to a Twins game to celebrate my birthday. We got there early so that I could collect autographs. I was excited to get almost every major player on the program: Rod Carew, Bert Blyleven, Louis Gomez, Lyman Bostock, Steve Braun and others. Unfortunately, I missed my hero, Tony Oliva.
“After the game, we stayed late, because my dad liked to let everyone else clear out before making his way out of Met Stadium. As we exited the stadium, Tony Oliva was standing in a hallway holding his baby and chatting with his family. I was too shy to interrupt, but my mom approached him and started speaking Spanish to him. He grinned and said to my mom, ‘You must have grown up in Cuba, because your accent is so beautiful.’
“He was correct, and they chatted for a long time about their memories of Cuba. He pulled a small publicity photo out of his coat pocket and signed it for me. He then posed for pictures with my mom and me. I don’t remember many of the players whose signatures I collected that day, but I will never forget Mr. Oliva.”
Appellate court judge
“When I was a little kid growing up in Chicago, I was a big White Sox fan. The old Comiskey Park had a fenced-in players’ parking lot, and after some games, I occasionally would stand at the gate to that lot and ask my exiting heroes for autographs.
“Few complied, but sometimes the rookies would come over to us kids to sign autographs and generally to bask in our adulation. Thinking about these events was a pleasant reminder of a distant era.”
Illini linebacker, 1995-99
“My older brother and I sort of persuaded my family to go to spring training and follow the Cubs for a week in Arizona. I was about 9 and Ryne Sandberg was my favorite.
“The game against the A’s ended and we waited around in the parking lot at Hohokam Stadium. Ryno came out of the Cubs locker room and fans swarmed to him as he tried to make his way to his Porsche. Mind you, I was small and could wiggle through the swarm. I soon found myself at my hero’s feet. I looked up and asked for an autograph and he looked down at me, smiled and asked everyone to make room. I got his rookie card signed with a blue ink pen. That’s a no-no when getting autographs, but I didn’t know any better at the time and I didn’t care because I would never sell it.”
Pitched for Centennial High School and eight major league teams
“Growing up, I was a big-time Cardinals fan. So was my dad. When I was 12, the Cardinal Caravan came to town and Lou Brock was part of it. He was my dad’s favorite player so I was really pumped to meet him. I got to shake his hand and get his autograph. It was my fondest memory of meeting a celebrity as a kid — ’cause it was my dad’s guy.”
UI women’s soccer coach
“My first real soccer coach was an Italian named Giancarlo Bernardi. He was a true soccer fan and really taught me about the passion that surrounds the sport.
“I was only about 13 and had just started playing. Mr. Bernardi heard Pele was coming to Dallas with the New York Cosmos, so we went to see him and were able to get up close enough to get an autograph. I remember touching his jersey to get his attention. I didn’t know at the time what a legend he was; there was no Internet. It was only over time that I realized what a special moment that was for a soccer player.”
CEO, Stephens Family YMCA
“Ernie Banks came to Rock Island, my hometown, and since my Dad was a Cubs fan and Ernie Banks fan, so was I. I got my picture taken with him and my brother. He is, and always will be, my favorite athlete.
“Later, I had an Olympic training job with Amana Corp. outside Iowa City and we did a function together. I showed him the picture, made him laugh and then he signed my medal from making the 1980
Olympic team, which is one of the few trophy things I keep — next to several Ernie Banks bobbleheads and statues.”
Men’s basketball coach, Parkland College
“When I was younger — seventh or eighth grade — my mother and I made a trip to the Indiana Black Expo in Indy. While there, I met Craig Hodges, who was playing for the Bulls at the time, and got his autograph. What’s crazy is I don’t ask for autographs. Even to this day, I’d rather shake hands and get a picture.
“Well, upon graduation from Centennial, I signed with Chicago State to play basketball and who turned out to be the coach? Craig Hodges. I told Craig the story and of course, like most celebs, he had no memory of it.”
Illinois state senator
“When I was a little kid, probably 4 or 5, my dad took me on a dugout tour at Busch Stadium. On my way out, I felt someone tugging on my sleeve, I turned around and one of the players handed me a ball.
“I’ve been a fan ever since. Worst part, though: the ball got tossed out over the years — probably in a forced clean-up of my always messy room — and I have no idea who the player was that signed it.”
Champaign County Sheriff
“The only autograph I ever got was a few years ago, when Sandra Lee of the Food Network was in Philo for ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.’
“I’m not a fan of autographs so, while I liked her show, I would not have sought her out. Things just happened to fall in place where we were in the same area and neither one of us was occupied with anything else. I think my fiancé talked me into it.”
Baseball coach, Champaign Central High School
“When I was 12, my parents took our family to a Cardinal game and we were able to gain access to the field prior to batting practice. The Expos were in town and they had a great team. I wasn’t a huge Cardinal fan so I sought autographs from Gary Carter, Tim Raines and Andre Dawson.
“I waited patiently as they were playing a game of hacky-sack and then finally Gary Carter came over to sign my program. Raines and Dawson soon followed and all of them were very cordial. I also got Cardinal Andy Van Slyke’s autograph and he was the friendliest of them all. A huge thrill, for sure.”
No. 5 in career tackles at Illinois
“When I was 11 or 12, I went to a local south suburban parade and met Minnie Minoso, who was the grand marshal. I was a Sox fan growing up but had to hear his story before I knew he was famous. I couldn’t believe this man was a nine-time All-Star and I didn’t know him.
“Thirty years later, I took my son to a game and he met Minnie, still young at 88 years old. I had to tell him the same story about his amazing career that I was told. I can’t find my circa 1983 autograph, but it certainly left an impression.”
2014 N-G All-Area Softball Coach of the Year from Monticello
“When I was about 12 years old, the USA Olympic softball team was playing in Bloomington. After the game, they set up tables on the field for autographs. I was so excited to get Lisa Fernandez. It was exciting to see her play and then I got her autograph on a white softball — that’s how long ago it was; the softballs were still white. I still have it at my parents’ house.”