For 60 years-plus, camaraderie is in the cards
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent September 3, 2014 12:54PM
Joe Calderone, Paul Nicola, Frank Lagger, Jack Glass, Jack Rossi and Ted Lagger sit at a table at Calderone's New Lenox home, one of the sites of the 61-year-old monthly poker game that originated at Rossi's home in Chicago's Roseland community. | Ginger Brashinger/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 4, 2014 2:14AM
A card game tradition begun by a group of friends more than 60 years ago in Chicago’s Roseland community is still going strong in the south suburbs, but it’s not the game that draws the members together. It’s the friendship.
“The card game doesn’t mean that much to us. The card game is just a reason to get together, because we get together all the time just to be together. That’s what it was when we were kids and that’s what it is now,” said Ted Lagger, 75, of Frankfort.
Lagger, Joe Calderone, 76, of New Lenox; and Frank Lagger, 74, of Joliet; are from the original gang of more than a dozen teenagers who began meeting weekly in 1953 at the home of Jack Rossi, 74, of Chicago.
Jack Glass, 74, of Orland Park, who joined the group in 1956, and Paul Nicola, 69, of Flossmoor, the “rookie” of the group at 47 years of playing time and counting, now round out the group, which still plays once a month.
The original members’ recollection is that it all began in 1953 when Rossi invited his friends to hang out at his house on Friday evenings sometime around the start of the school year.
Their usual haunt for pitching pennies, playing handball, eating sausage sandwiches and drinking milkshakes was at Pat and Matt’s candy store on Kensington Avenue, their “home away from home,” Ted Lagger said, but they were happy to spend Friday evenings at Rossi’s, where a couple of groups of guys could play two separate card games while another group sat in the living room “sitting around talking and arguing about things.”
Eventually, Rossi’s mother, Grace Rossi, taught the guys how to play poker. When Grace Rossi got home from her job at Toots Rago Pizza on Michigan Avenue, she would play poker with the guys, betting with her pennies — which were all collected at the end of the game, Frank Lagger said.
The guys remember “Aunt Grace” for her warm hospitality and generous nature.
“As we got older, Mrs. Rossi played with us, and as we got older yet, she’d make breakfast for us,” Calderone said. “She was just a great lady.”
Ted Lagger said that although the card games were a bonding experience that has lasted a lifetime, most of the guys were friends long before that, playing ball and hanging out from an early age in Roseland.
“Some of us knew each other from the time we were 8 or 9 years old,” Lagger said.
There is a general consensus among them that being a part of the Roseland area, including “Bum Town,” was the magic glue that held them together. To them, there was no place like Roseland.
“You ask anybody that came from Roseland and they’ll tell you it was a little bit of heaven in Chicago,” Lagger said. “There was nothing like it. They had a shopping area that people used to come from miles around just to shop.”
Roseland was “unique,” they said, because a variety of ethnic groups lived within a one-square-mile area — each group with its own church within blocks of each other — living and playing together in “peace and harmony.”
The group of friends remained in each other’s lives as they grew older, married and had children, often standing up in each other’s weddings and becoming godfathers for each other’s children. New Year’s Eves often were spent together, with each family’s kids asleep in a bedroom or two while the adults celebrated.
Those who moved out of state still stop in to visit when they return to the area.
Bill Van Heel, John Schapendonk and Tom Bartelli have moved out of state, and Tony Pittacora, of Chicago, and Bill Gouwens, of Frankfort, keep in touch but no longer play cards. Some friends from the original group died. Phil Calderone and Nick Witteveen died in their early 30s, and Dennis Aardema also died, they said.
The Friday night games weren’t all about cards. Jack Glass said as the guys got older, they eventually went out to breakfast at Tony’s Snack Shop on 111th Street and Michigan Avenue and would go on to play golf on Saturday morning after being up all night playing poker.
That changed when many of them married and found that sleeping all day Saturday after the golf game “didn’t sit too well” with the wives.
The game changed, too, from weekly Friday evening games to once a month, and the guys took turns meeting at each other’s homes.
Bets increased over the years from the original pennies to “quarter/low and half/high,” but once the guys became family men, they created a “$15 poverty” rule that allowed everyone to play even if they lost the $15 limit, Frank Lagger said.
“You’re never out of the game,” Lagger said. “You play for free.”
“We weren’t concerned about the money as much as we were concerned about playing and being together,” Nicola said.
The current members of the group agree that the “game” will never end.
“If we don’t have enough (guys) for cards or can’t see the cards no more, we’ll still get together,” Calderone said. “There’s only one way it will end — the inevitable.”