Home Sweet Home
By Dan Coughlin
Here’s what I really missed during the pandemic — saying goodbye to old friends and acquaintances who died. Almost all wakes and funeral services were postponed. People died in obscurity and they took their stories with them. During my eighteen years writing sports at The Plain Dealer and later writing books, I heard many stories at funeral homes that later became newspaper columns and chapters in my books.
Many years ago, I walked across the street from The Plain Dealer building to St. Peter’s Catholic Church for the funeral service of a man named E. J. Kissell, a police reporter for The Plain Dealer. Kissell, a life-long bachelor, was a very mysterious man. He worked the late night shift out of the press room in the old Central Police Station on Payne Avene and actually entered The Plain Dealer only once a week at midnight to pick up his pay check. Virtually no one saw him.
About twenty reporters and deskmen attended his funeral service – like me – out of curiosity. Some of them walked up to the microphone and shared an anecdote. Among them was Dick Peery, who also covered the police beat.
“The first two years I saw him walking around the police station, I thought he was a detective,” said Peery, “and we worked for the same paper.”
The last person who spoke was a woman we did not know. She said she was Kissell’s “special” friend for thirty years and told tender stories about him.
“But I always wondered,” she said, “if someday I would discover that he had a wife and three kids in Garfield Heights.”
It was the funniest line I have ever heard at a funeral – and she was serious.
A few months ago, we stared down the Corona virus and attended the funeral Mass for Jim Nieberding, an old friend who had everything good going for him. His mother was a McDonough; he went to Cathedral Latin; he was a paratrooper in Korea; he taught at St. Edward High School; he played on my Sunday morning slow-pitch softball team.
In his eulogy, Jim’s brother told us how Jim and his wife Alberta got together. They were both teaching confraternity classes at St. Ignatius of Antioch Parish. In those days it was the name for religion classes for kids who went to public school.
It was no surprise that Alberta caught Jim’s eye. Jim didn’t think that a classroom at St. Ignatius of Antioch grade school was an appropriate place to ask Alberta for a date, but he did ask her for her phone number.
“She wrote it on the back of a holy card,” Jim’s brother revealed.
“No,” said Alberta, “I wrote it on the back of a bookmark that I picked up off the desk. But it did have a picture of Mary or Joseph on the front.”
They wound up married for about sixty years.
I walked out of St. Angela Merici church that morning knowing that someday I would use that story in my next sports book – and I will. Jim certainly qualified. He was, after all, a softball player in the Charlie Sheets Sunday morning League.
After the service for another old friend at Berkowitz, Kumin, Bookatz, a woman walked up to me and introduced herself.
“I was the other woman,” she said.
That snapped me to attention. She went on to say that they had been boyfriend and girlfriend for at least the last twenty years. My friend was in his seventies, which made her age appropriate.
She made no attempt to hide her years, but that wasn’t necessary. She was a good-looking woman. And here I thought his only interests were riding his Harley and running his business.
I don’t know why she told me. I guess she had to tell somebody. Since we were standing on the fringe of a group of family members, I was her go-to guy.
She told me she was a masseuse. She gave me her card.
“Call me if I can do anything for you,” she said.
“No, I think I’ll get a motorcycle,” I said.
Naturally, the Irish funeral homes on the West Side are my happy hunting grounds; places such as McGorray-Hanna, Chambers, Berry’s and Corrigan’s, but I also can find my way to Schulte & Mahon-Murphy on the East Side, and, as I just mentioned, Berkowitz-Kumin.
Most people groan when they walk into a wake and are confronted by long lines. Not me; I rejoice. At McGorray’s the serpentine line sometimes stretches from the casket, where the family lines up, and into the hallway where it doubles up like the mazes at Cedar Point.
I began conversations in one direction and resumed them in the other direction. I was collected several story ideas. Furthermore, I enjoyed myself so much that after consoling the family I went back out into the hallway and went through the line again.
I set my personal record for longest line in May of 2018 at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Mentor. But it wasn’t in church and it wasn’t in the funeral home. Neither one was big enough. It was in the community room, about the size of the school gym. The line stretched from the far wall of the community room out the door into the parking lot and around two sides of the building until it reached Euclid Ave.
“I’ve been a funeral director for twenty years and it was the longest line I’ve ever seen,” said Kevin Coyne of McMahon-Coyne-Vitantonio Funeral Home. “It was unbelievable. The wake was too big for any funeral home, especially the parking.”
The subject of such devotion was Joanne Randazzo, an Irish girl with an Italian name. Her husband was Bob Randazzo, known popularly as Bob Roberts, The Plain Dealer’s horse racing handicapper, also known as The Railbird. Joanne worked for thirty years in the main office of Lake Catholic High School. To say she was beloved is an understatement; she was revered.
I asked Kevin to put a number on the mourners.
“Thirteen hundred. Maybe 1,500,” he said.
The line lasted for almost eight hours. There were thirty years of students, teachers and football and basketball coaches. I touched dozens of bases. There wasn’t a gambler or horse player in the crowd.
“Do you expect the same kind of turnout?” I asked the Railbird.
“My wake will be from four o’clock to 4:15. Don’t be late,” he said.
Frankly, over the last half-century, I’ve spent more time at funeral homes than at movie theaters. As a matter of fact, I met my wife, Maddy, at a wake at McGorray’s in Lakewood many years ago. Yes, funeral homes are preferable to singles bars in that regard, which is a story for another time.
It’s been a tough pandemic. I missed all this stuff.