A Tribute to My Godfather

Dad & Phil

It was a nice August morning in 2008 when the phone rang. I typically don’t answer the phone when my parents aren’t home, but for some reason, I did this morning. Peggy O’Connor Vollert was on the other end, and she conveyed to me the devastating news that her brother, Phil, had passed away over the weekend.

I shook as I sat down. My first thought was how do I tell my father that this giant of a man was no longer with us. Peggy, obviously in shock herself but sensing my reaction, asked if I was able to tell my parents. I told her I couldn’t tell my dad. She said she could, and would; and did; and told me not too worry about it. For that kindness, she holds a special place in my heart.

Phil, as we all know, was an accomplished man. He earned advanced degrees beyond his diploma at St. Ignatius; he served his country with distinction; he taught successfully for decades; and, of course, he wrote. As an aspiring writer myself, this particular activity made me not only incredibly proud to be his goddaughter, but understandably intimidated as well.

But before Phil went to college, before he served in the Army, before he traveled halfway across the country to set himself apart as an educator and a writer, Phil was one, if not the main one, of the many characters from my father’s past. Phil and my father were an unlikely pair. Phil was studious, my father was not. Phil was quiet, my father was not.

One Sunday, Phil was studying for some finals at USF. My father, having recently returned from his time in the Navy, came by Phil’s house and suggested they go get a drink. Phil resisted and told him he had to study for a big exam the next day. Phil’s mother upbraided him, and in her Irish brogue, nearly ordered him to go out with “Bobbie”, since he had just returned from the Islands. “One drink!” he said to him.

They left for the Portals with the sound of the Jackie Gleason show coming from Mrs. O’Connor’s television set. At the Portals, my father ordered Phil a beer; he also ordered four shots which he put in the beer. Before the Jackie Gleason show was over, Phil returned home. Stumbling in, he peered at his mother, “This is all your fault.” That exam, I am sure, was one of the few on which he scored poorly. Phil went on to be my father’s best man and then my godfather. So he stands out above the rest. I didn’t know Phil as a writer or great teacher, I knew Phil, albeit only from my father’s colorful stories, as a teammate, classmate and friend.

Another memorable story is when my father and Phil were driving up Junipero Serra Blvd. in Phil’s 1947 Pontiac. They were in South San Francisco retrieving my grandfather’s 240 pound St. Bernard “Duke” from Bill Harr’s house. They came to a sudden stop at the intersection at Hickey Boulevard, and Duke, who was in the back seat, flew into the driver’s seat while Phil slid onto the driver’s seat floorboard. My dad, getting up first from the passenger side floorboard, was able to see the ashen- faced old lady’s expression as she beheld Duke as the apparent driver of the vehicle next to her. She could not see my dad or Phil.

Another story, less humorous, but worthy of recounting, happened on a day at the river during Memorial Day weekend. Dinner was running late, so Phil and my dad decided to take the little boat out for a spin. There were still some folks on the river, usually the water skiers came out at dusk since the river was less crowded. A commotion was brewing around the big stump about a mile and a half up from Johnson’s Beach. Phil and my dad came upon the scene, found out what was going on, and, in no time, Phil was in the water looking for the injured skier who just crashed head-on into the stump. Phil fished the skier out from the bottom of the river, saving his life.

The stories are endless. The people are always the same: my dad, Phil, Ken Frey, Tim Treacey, Herbie Haskins, Bill Helmer, Ed Fleming and a colorful array of supporting characters. The settings usually take place at a ballgame, the river, a dance and frequently a bar. The plot always includes some drinking, some football and some fighting.

Wasn’t it yesterday, though, when it was just playing football and going to dances? Wasn’t it yesterday, too, it was working, raising families and making ends meet? Wasn’t it yesterday when the kids left, and the house quieted down? Indeed, how the grass withers and the flower fades, and the earthen vessels begin to crack and crumble. Even though Phil’s health had gradually deteriorated the year before his death, his personality was still robust and full of life. I had talked to him a couple of times during that time, and he told me of his various medical conditions. Yet over the phone, he was so exuberant; I didn’t think the end was so close.

At Phil’s memorial, his sons eulogized him as a great father, and so he was.   Tributes to his writing could be found across the country. Students from Bowling Green University sent condolences to the website his son constructed in his honor. His friends at S.I. mourned yet another classmate.

Even though he was my godfather, he will always be to me my father’s best friend. When I had talked to Phil about the S.I. days, I usually got an entirely different version than my father’s. I regret not talking to him more; I wish I wasn’t so intimidated by him. The last time I talked to him, about two weeks before that August morning, I had called him to bounce a writing idea off of him. He said he was nearly finished with some projects and would like to talk more about it when he was free. I also told him about an article I had written and wondered if he wanted to look at it; but I couldn’t find my journal amidst the moving boxes. He laughed, with that deep, familiar laugh, “Donna, you are a writer!” That glib comment from this man at that time, two weeks before he died, made me think seriously about this craft of writing; he certainly left me a great example to follow.

Phil, the writer, the teacher, the father, will always be remembered by me as the fella, who sometimes against his better judgment, accompanied my father on his many antics and misadventures. So this tribute is to highlight that Phil O’Connor that may have been overlooked.




This entry was posted on October 8, 2015. 1 Comment

Babysitter Mode


When I came home from a long day at work today, I was hungry and wanted to cook something up; but the stove top blew a circuit. So I hopped in the car with a couple (TWO) kids. It wasn’t long into the bickerfest that I reminisced about the days when all the kids were home and chaos reigned. I had to come up with some coping skills.

Back in those days when all ten were under the same roof, and there was another parent around, I created a mental device to insure my sanity. I called it Babysitter Mode. When there would be wars on multiple fronts, meals to try to prepare, laundry to diminish (because, as you know, it never ends), chaos to calm all with approximately three hours of sleep, I was about to blow a circuit or two myself. Other mothers told me stories of how they coped with their many kids. One locked herself in a bathroom til Dad came home. I know my mom’s generation had their coping skills too, and I think drinking was involved.

So, in order to keep my head and sanity, I created Babysitter Mode. When things got out of hand and I didn’t have the stamina to deal with it all, I switched to Babysitter Mode, and my primary task was keeping the children from killing each other. Period. I was no longer in Mommy Mode, Good Mother Mode or even Bad Mother Mode, I was just the sitter. No dishes, some snacks, definitely no laundry. I was working until the other parent came home.

There are certain rules during Babysitter Mode.

  1. Questions are limited to one per kid. There is a kid who can shoot off two dozen questions from the house to Dollar Tree, the distance of, say, one mile. Absolutely forbidden in Babysitter Mode. If their questions exceeded this limit, the babysitter gently replies, “Ask your father when he gets home.”
  2. Sorry, but the babysitter will not read any books to the children. Although innocent enough, she has learned that this idea will inevitably create another skirmish when a book is not agreed upon.
  3. Children can watch whatever they want on TV. Since at this time, there wasn’t cable, there weren’t many choices. A VHS tape of general interest is usually successful.
  4. Older children may play any video game except Super Smash Brothers since the brothers often confuse the game with reality.
  5. The babysitter does not help with homework.
  6. The babysitter does not give any rides.
  7. Once the peace has been established, the babysitter may find a quiet corner and read a book of her choice.
  8. The babysitter will only bathe the children if they are considerably dirty.
  9. Older children are encouraged to go to their friends’ houses, but friends are not allowed over.
  10. The babysitter will refer all conflict resolutions to the father which usually ends the conflict right there and then.
  11. The babysitter will refer to the clock when asked “What time is it?”
  12. The babysitter will not spell a word for anyone.

I have found Babysitter Mode to be a successful coping device when things use to get out of hand. I chuckled tonight as I remembered the days of Babysitter Mode. Though things have quieted down a lot with only four kids at home, I may still switch to Babysitter Mode just for a moment alone with a book.

“You Made Me Love You”

donna and joe

Anyone remember when Judy Garland admiringly sang “You Made Me Love You” to a picture of Clark Gable in “Broadway Melody of 1938”? I didn’t think so. Anyway, here is my paltry tribute to my Clark Gable.

Thirty years ago, Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers brought football glory to our town. And if you will humor me, I give you this tribute to whom I believe is the best to have played the game. (Listening to Judy Garland’s version of “You Made Me Love You” is optional.)

“You made me love you/I didn’t want to do it/I didn’t want to do it/You made me want you/And all the time you knew it/I guess you always knew it.”  

October 18, 1975. Air Force was flying away with this game while the Irish groveled 20 points behind. There was no luck here, so Dan Devine threw in his lucky charm in sophomore Joe Montana, who stunned the Tar Heels during the previous week with a phenomenal fourth-quarter turnaround. Could he do it again? If I did not witness this myself, I swear it did not happen: Montana took the Irish to the end zone three times in less than 15 minutes to ground Air Force with a score of 31-30.

“You made me happy sometimes/you made me glad.”

January 10, 1982. If they were playing any other team, Dallas would have ended up in Pontiac that January instead of the 49ers. You can’t give Joe Montana half a minute because he will wreak havoc. The play that will live on in the annals of football lore: third down, 3 yards to go at Dallas’s 6-yard line, 58 seconds on the clock, sprint right option. Solomon, the first receiver, was covered. But, despite the onslaught of the Cowboys’ defense, Montana shot off an ill-footed pass over the Dallas tidal wave to where he knew Dwight Clark would be…should be…and, wonderfully, was. The sound of the delirious crowd confirmed the incredible catch. The rest is history.

“But there were times, Joe/you made me feel real bad.”

April 18, 1995. Amid a crowd of tens of thousands in Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco, football great and legend Joe Montana announced his retirement from the gridiron—a day his fans knew was coming but dreaded nonetheless. No more Joe Cool, no more fancy footwork nimbling away from defensive ends, no more antacid-eating, hand-wringing, blood pressure-checking fourth quarter saves with minutes to go and touchdowns to make. Our delightful dalliance with destiny has come to an end.

“I don’t care what happens/let the whole world stop/as far as I’m concerned you’ll always be the top because you know you made me love you.” (The song lyrics are by Joseph McCarthy.)

Growing up with a father who played and coached football, I saw a lot of games—high school, college and pro games. I watched Johnny Unitas and the Colts, barely remember Bart Starr, the Packers and that toothy Lombardi victory grin, secretly loved Don Shula’s Dolphins and, with most of the West Coast, hated the Steelers (but had to admire their ferocity). But, Joe, none could compare to the gift you gave to San Francisco. We witnessed the best to have played, at least in my lifetime. Thank you for the grace and beauty you spun from pigskin and mud.

The Old Man Walking Down the Road

Smiley walking

I was driving home one Sunday after trying to go to church. I was angry we hadn’t made it to the service because of the little war that erupted in the car. While driving, I noticed an old man walking on the road. The road was a busy four-lane street without sidewalks. He was walking in the direction I was driving, and I was coming up behind him. From the back, I noticed his ill-fitting suit and his brown derby securely on his head. He reminded me of my old, agile Portuguese neighbor whom I’d admire from my window as he repaired his roof.

I passed the old man and glanced at him in the rear view mirror, thinking maybe I would see that old Portuguese face. I knew I wouldn’t because that neighbor had already left this world. And this man was very much alive. He was defiantly smoking a cigarette while walking at a brisk pace. He wanted to cross the four-lane road, and I glanced in my mirror again to see if he was successful. I thought maybe I would stop to help. But, he was determined and sure-footed. He didn’t need my help, he would make it.

This old man, his clothing, his hat and his defiant manner reminded me of my carefree childhood when men like him were all over the place. The most discomfort I felt was the anticipation of doing chores, or the consequences of not doing homework. My most pressing concerns were whether that cute guy was going to be on the bus or if I had a ride to the dance on Friday. What a stark contrast to today! Driving home with a car full of children worrying about a bank account empty of funds, my concerns had dramatically changed. There are creases on my brow from the sheer weight of my responsibilities. Men, like that old man walking down the road, had the same creases. My father had the same creases.

My father told me of a time when the weight of his responsibilities were at their heaviest. Confronted by his boss to quit drinking or to quit, he purchased a six-pack to think it over. After that was gone, he got a ride to the Russian River where my mom and we kids were. In the cabin, he was lying on his bed contemplating the wife, the kids, the mortgage, the houses, all the cares; and these responsibilities pressed hard. He could hear the kids splashing and laughing as they swam, careless, without worry, while he was carrying the load, however imperfectly, on his fragile shoulders.

Fast forward forty years, my children were silent in the car because they knew I was mad. I looked nervously at the little gaslight that comes on when the tank is empty reminding me of the many empties in my life. Now the burden was on my even more fragile shoulders, and I felt like my father did. But that old man reminded me of the kind of folks who were around when I was a kid; they had their creases, their responsibilities, but somehow they made it. That six-pack was the last my father bought, and he made it, too. I looked back one final time and saw that the old man made it across. So I drove home that quiet Sunday afternoon, believing I would make it too, like my father and like the old man walking on the road.

San Francisco’s Mariners


The signs are up. Pacifica Tigersharks, Daly City Titans and Redwood City’s Jr. 49ers are among the many I’ve seen lately. Pop Warner Football and Cheer will be kicking off another season. Soon it will be time to suit up and hit the field. Yet, when I think of Pop Warner Football, I don’t move down the field with the current lineup; no, I spiral back to a past season, a season when I was the young daughter of a Pop Warner Football coach.

My father, Bob Moore, along with John Shea and San Francisco Police Department’s Steve Spelman assembled the first Mariners team over 50 years ago in the fall of 1961. Spelman was coaching PAL’s Happy Hibernian Warriors at Douglas Park while my dad and John Shea were coaching Park and Rec’s flag football teams at South Sunset Park. Together, along with Sully Cassou, they created a football machine that equipped, trained and prepared a generation of young men for high school, college and even professional ball playing.

Initially they played down at 26th and Vicente and then moved to SFPD’s Taraval Station whose garage served as their locker room. They practiced across the street at McCoppin Square and played their home games at Lincoln High’s football field. The turnout was so great that eventually the Mariners formed two minor teams, the Mariner Mates and the Mariner Seaweeds for the younger boys.

For the next fifteen years, the Mariners contended for the top spot in the league’s standings. Joe MacKenzie remarked that the 1964 Mariner team was one of the best he’d seen; he even remembered my father shouting instructions through his green and white Mariner bullhorn. In 1966, the Mariners lost the championship to the San Francisco Steelers. But in 1968, they took all the wins. According to Tom MacKenzie, assistant coach at the time, “the Mariners won the San Francisco City Championship at the Junior Bantam level. They beat the San Ramon Thunderbirds 14-0 in the Joe Lacy Memorial Bowl.” As head coach, MacKenzie outfitted two strong teams in 1970 and 1971. At the year-end banquet, guest speaker 49er Charlie Krueger admired the 1971 Mariner record.

Many of the players went on to help coach the Mates and/or the Mariners. Many Mariner coaches, like John Shea and Tom MacKenzie, went on to coaching careers; but most of these men, Hank Espinal, Jack Olson, Merle Peacock, Larry Kaaha, Dick Galliani, and a host of others, were regular businessmen, construction workers and policemen. Bill Morgan and his family were folks we visited on our Sunday afternoon drives; both his sons, Jack and Craig, were Mariners.

Despite the tumultuous societal and political storms of these fifteen years, especially in San Francisco, these men quietly gave of their free time and their talent. The motto from many of the Mariners’ programs was “A man never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a boy.” These men stood very tall helping a generation of young men understand that the rules on the field can easily be translated to the game of life. Hard work, teamwork, respect and good sportsmanship are qualities that can be applicable in any endeavor.

By 1976, the Mariners organization had folded. The lockers were cleared out of Taraval Station’s garage, the green and white jackets and the Mariner memorabilia found their way to many Sunset District attics. As a native San Franciscan, the trinkets in my mental treasure chest include memories of the rickety bridge at Playland, ice cream at Polly Ann’s, A.P. Giannini’s insurmountable chain link fence, the long walk up 40th Avenue to Holy Name, and— the green and white Mariner bullhorn.

I would like to thank my dad, John Shea, Mrs. Joan Spelman, Bob Mahoney, Rob Helmstreit, Tom MacKenzie, Joe MacKenzie and Joe Hession for their contributions.

Mariners coachesSF Mariners Pop Warner football team coaches. Sully Cassou standing second from right. Steve Spelman kneeling second from left with Bob Moore and John Shea on his left.

The Boys of Autumn

boys of autumn

The Boys of Autumn

by Robert Moore, as told to Donna Fentanes

It’s September 1948. The curtain had come down on World War II, the airlift in Berlin was underway, and something was brewing on the Korean Peninsula that would dramatically affect our lives in the near future. The grim memories of the war were retreating to the attic of our memories; except for the few whose wounds were so deep that they would remain front and center forever.

Under this backdrop, these boys of autumn assembled, and the season of ’48 began. We were anxious to prove ourselves worthy of the Red & Blue. If we didn’t know each other from the “goof squad”, we met at the two-a-days in August. Nineteen forty-eight was our year. Our fifteen minutes of fame. We were S.I. And we were going to go all the way.

Football is a great, all-consuming sport. Just being on the field is exciting. There is nothing like the smell of freshly cut grass; nothing like the sound of a kick-off. The anxiety right before a play, the crash of shoulder pads, and the scrambling for the ball are all experiences non- transferable to the stands. Your eyes are fixed on the ball, your ears alert to changes in motion, the sweat and mud permeate your skin, you spit blood and mud, and, yes, you can smell a linebacker a mile away.

Football demands all from your body, your heart and your wit. We were happy to comply and submit to its demands. Our coach, Mike Hemovich, whipped us into shape, bruising our bodies without bruising our spirits. A war hero, Coach Hemovich was the kind of coach who not only taught good football, but also taught good and right living. He was a nice man with nice manners. He treated us kids with respect and kindness. His stock is sorely missed today.

There we were. The S. I. Wildcats Varsity Football Team.   We had a good season and made it to the semi-finals. From the “goof squad” to varsity, we saw football first hand, on the field, playing and watching from the sidelines. We wore the uniform. We felt the wet earth, we heard the groans. Then we graduated. We’d return to games to see younger brothers, or just to relive our memories. Then we came to watch our sons or bring our kids to see games. It’s different in the stands than on the field. But you can still smell the grass or think you feel the gravely mud in your mouth. And you always feel the pain.

It’s September 2006. The dusty streets of Baghdad headline the newscasts. A woman stands poised to become the first female Speaker of the House. And something maybe brewing, again, on the Korean Peninsula that could dramatically affect our lives or those of our children and grandchildren. On a warm, bucolic afternoon late in that September, the boys of autumn huddled once again for the first time in 58 years. There we were The Varsity Football Team of 1948, or what remained of us, regrouping on Dante Ravetti’s Hillsborough patio. We enjoyed a superb luncheon graciously hosted by Dante and his lovely wife, Terry.

Certainly not the same sight as 58 years earlier, but definitely the same men.   We reminisced, and thought about those who weren’t with us any longer. We commented on how well we looked and held a few more mental reservations. A good time was had by all; and at the end of the afternoon, we, then, entered into the 4th quarter of our lives. What a game!!!

Above, the 1948 St. Ignatius football team. Below, in 2006, at the home of Dante and Terry Ravetti were members of St. Ignatius College Preparatory’s 1948 football team; front, from left: Bob Moore, Bill Helmer, Dan Ravetti and Laurie McCaffrey; standing, from left: Pete Arrigoni, Jack Cunningham, Bob Menicucci, Jack Mackall, Gerry Martin, Preston Lee (foreground), Gene Lynch, Pete Labrado (partially obscured), Bill Rippon, Harry Mullins, Phil O’Connor, and Tevis Martin.

boys of autumn2

Autumn and Joe Montana

joe montana

A family member brushed shoulders with Joe Montana several years ago. My father had called and asked, “Guess who so and so ran into?” I wasn’t in the mood for any guessing games; there was a heat wave, the kids were going crazy, and I’m sure a million other things were going wrong. “I don’t know, who?” I surrendered. “Come on, guess.” “I don’t know, Arnie?” “Bigger than Arnold.” Oh, great, who was bigger than Arnold here in California? “I have no idea.” “His initials are J.M.” I tried to think of someone and gave up. “I have no idea, I have no brain cells left to even try and guess.”

“Joe Montana.” He whispered.

“No way!” I exclaimed, “no way!” “How? When?” He went on and told me the details of the encounter. I was genuinely impressed and very envious.

Joe Montana. The man who I think is the greatest football player in my lifetime. I couldn’t believe it. This man and his extraordinary ability on the field found their way into our family’s existence. I’ve never met him nor ever will. But the thought of Joe Montana not only conjures up images of great football, but also of intimate, warm memories of autumns gone by. His ball playing added color and vibrancy to my little life here in Northern California.

Today is the first day of autumn, and it’s hard not to recall the autumns of my youth without Joe there, albeit on the sidelines in the game of my life. See, I love fall, I love Halloween and Thanksgiving. I love oranges, and browns, and forest greens. I love the way the wind changes during Indian Summer with the sweet Santa Anas blowing off the East Bay hills. I loved playing and watching football, so for many years, Joe Montana was a part of those favorite memories.

Our family went up to the Russian River for our Thanksgiving holiday for many years. My father had a cabin up there; but we went to my uncle’s cabin for the big meal. That house has become a shrine in my memory. The dining room table enclosed by three benches where we five kids sat below the shelf lined with Italian wine bottles was where we had our Thanksgiving dinner; I can still see my grandmother from the table puttering around in the little kitchen offering us some of her mince meat pie. We gently refused. An intimate fire always warmed the living room and off to one corner was a small twin bed where I slept on my rare visits to the cabin. Near the bed was a bookshelf, filled with all sorts of literary treasures, and when I was there, I was in heaven.

You know, when you’re young you’re not conscious of the beauty around you, those moments go by, but they’re stamped somewhere in your mind and when the stresses of the present weigh you down, you look back and those memories have become jewels. I wish I spent more time with my grandmother, I wish I could remember her voice, her face – I wish I could ask her about when my father was little, about my grandfather and about her.

But, where does Joe come into this picture? Well, my father played ball for the Navy and then went on to coach. So football was a big part of our lives. Every Thanksgiving guaranteed two things: that incredible meal and tons of football. Football was the only thing on TV from Thursday morning until Sunday night, and if you didn’t bring a book or something to occupy your time, you were destined to watch it all. One year I tallied how many games I had watched: 11; I guess that doesn’t seem like too many now with cable and ESPN.

The highlight of the weekend was always the Notre Dame game. One year some upstart 3rd string quarterback came in and won the game for the Irish. We didn’t know then a legend was in the making. Watching those games with my dad with the redwood logs crackling in the fire, rain pattering on the roof and my mother baking something delicious in the kitchen all at the time seem so average, so typical, so mundane; now, they are photographs in my mind, colors and flavors of who I am.

When I think of Joe Montana, I am flooded with these beautiful memories. Were they idyllic? Absolutely not, there were darker shades that mar some of these memories, but strange as our memories are, those hues fade a bit to the background.

But Joe Montana, like football, transcends seasons. His presence would reappear in bolder, more spectacular strokes with that catch in 1982. After that unbelievable Super Bowl, I went to the celebration downtown to pass out religious tracts. San Francisco hadn’t been rocked with such a force since April of 1906. That was the place to be on January 24, 1982. And in my own life, I too was rocked, with a divine force, after I had recently embraced a living faith in Christianity.

But, that happiness in January of 1982 was just a deposit of things to come. He took San Francisco to the Super Bowl three more times. He catapulted the 49ers into the league with Green Bay, Miami and Pittsburgh. Time after time after time, with seconds to go and touchdowns to make, Joe, with his cool expertise, would go in and do the job.

Football, as you know, is a manly, messy, bloody sport. The sport that gives men license to beat the hell out of each other and gives us fans an outlet for adulation for our team and hatred for our opponents. With the language of longshoremen and the manners of adolescents, Joe Montana took these elements of the game and, effortlessly, made it beautiful. He is an artist of the utmost ability. After he retired, I pretty much quit watching the game. I caught a few Super Bowls with the kids and that was fun, but no comparison.

But after witnessing who I believe is the greatest to play the game, there is no desire to watch anymore. Thank you, Joe, for the beauty and grace that you created out of pigskin and mud and gracing our autumns with such spectacular color .