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‘He’s one of us’ sums up style of Bears’ new boss George McCaskey

New Bears chairman George McCaskey.| Richard A. Chapman~ Sun-Times

New Bears chairman George McCaskey.| Richard A. Chapman~ Sun-Times

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Updated: June 27, 2012 6:16PM

George McCaskey can color any conversation with well-timed jokes, one-liners and stories about his legendary grandfather.

That engaging personality, which was essential in his longtime role as the Bears’ head of ticket sales, was on full display during a lunch interview with the Sun-Times on Wednesday.

Only one subject makes him uneasy.

‘‘I’m uncomfortable talking about myself,’’ McCaskey said.

While George Halas exerted his considerable influence as one of the NFL’s pioneers, his successors have embraced the understated approach of Virginia McCaskey, who inherited the Bears in 1983. They’re willful about blending in, not standing out, and they’re mindful — in the rare instances when they do speak publicly — of creating any controversy.

So I welcomed a chance to break bread with George McCaskey, the Bears’ new chairman, and I asked him to pick someplace to eat.

Where he picked and how we got there is telling of the man he is.

McCaskey arrived on time, at the doorway of Scott Hagel, the Bears’ senior director of corporate communications. He ribbed media-relations director Jim Christman about the personalized license plate on his two-door muscle car.

When we left Halas Hall, we walked past Christman’s car — and every other in the lot — until we arrived at a Honda Accord.

‘‘You don’t see a ‘Reserved for George McCaskey’ spot,’’ said Krista Fortman, a ticket operations assistant. ‘‘He’s one of us. He doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. If you saw him out somewhere, no one would know he’s ‘The Guy’ of the Chicago Bears.’’

Fortman is right. McCaskey didn’t drive us to a country club or a steakhouse, opting instead for The Lantern, a homey restaurant in downtown Lake Forest that claims to have the ‘‘Best Burgers in Town.’’

He doesn’t have a reservation or a standing table, and nary a person appears to realize who he is: the chairman of a franchise that Forbes valued last year at $1.1  billion.

Around Halas Hall, McCaskey assigns nicknames to employees and insists they call him George.

‘‘When I first started, I called him Mr. McCaskey, and he said, ‘That’s my father,’ ’’ Fortman recalled.

Yet don’t be duped by the easygoing nature.

‘‘The goal of everybody in this organization is to see Virginia McCaskey hoist the Super Bowl trophy,’’ McCaskey said. ‘‘And as soon as that happens, the goal will immediately become to see her do it again.’’

Making his own mark

When he was weighing colleges, McCaskey longed to venture far from home, distancing himself from his family legacy.

He selected Arizona State and settled into a conversation with his new roommate on his first day on campus.

‘‘I’m shooting the breeze, and he said, ‘So you’re George Halas’ grandson . . . ’ ’’ McCaskey recalled. ‘‘I’m like, ‘Geez. I’ve come all this way . . . ’ But it made me realize that there’s no need to get away from it. Just embrace it and celebrate it, and deal with it. There are some disadvantages, but there are a whole lot of advantages.’’

His parents, Ed and Virginia McCaskey, conveyed to all 11 of their children that a job with the Bears wasn’t promised, only earned. They would need to carve out their own careers, so McCaskey worked in television journalism and in the state’s attorney’s offices in Lee and DeKalb counties.

He fondly recalls the unglamorous work in television, including an ‘‘associate producer’’ position while he was in law school at ASU.

‘‘It was $2.50 an hour,’’ he said, ‘‘and I was literally emptying the wastebaskets.’’

But he’s thankful for that track because he met his wife, Barb, when he was a reporter at the NBC affiliate in Peoria.

Deep inside, McCaskey longed for the call-up, an opportunity to work for the Bears.

As a child, he — like countless others — was in awe of his grandfather.

‘‘We used to wait for him outside the clubhouse at Wrigley Field,’’ he said. ‘‘He’d come out of the clubhouse and, win or lose, he was excited to see us, and he chatted us up and slipped right into the grandfather role. I wonder how difficult it was, especially after a tough loss.’’

As the children approached elementary school, they started to care about the outcomes, and the ultimate punishment in their household was not being allowed to go to the next Bears game.

So McCaskey didn’t flinch when older brother Michael, then the chairman, called him and offered him the job as the team’s director of ticket sales.

Customer care

McCaskey figured he’d get a handle on his new job after three years. But he quickly discovered that was an impossible task with ticket sales, especially when Soldier Field was already selling out. The only direction was down.

He focused on customer relations, hand-writing letters or calling to address any concerns.

Despite the current NFL lockout, the Bears have a 98 percent renewal rate for season tickets, and they have more than 6,000 people on a waiting list.

McCaskey’s edict to his staff is to always put yourself in the shoes of the customer.

Lee Twarling, who was promoted to replace McCaskey, marvels at the humble approach of his longtime boss.

‘‘He never asked us to do something he wasn’t willing to do, which made you feel good,” Twarling said. ‘‘We always felt like we had a fearless leader.’’

Before and even during games, George routinely checks on customers, and he doesn’t shy from personal relationships. About six years ago, he met Pat Raddatz, who is confined to a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy. An outgoing boy who aspires to be a sports reporter, Raddatz frequently e-mails and calls McCaskey.

Sometimes Pat’s mother, Melody, shakes her head at the candor of her son. Among his requests: tickets to the NFC title game and an interview with matriarch Virginia McCaskey.

George McCaskey delivered both times.

‘‘For me, as a mother, it can be overwhelming because it’s the Chicago Bears, it’s George McCaskey,’’ Melody said. ‘‘What can you say? It’s amazing.’’

The relationship doesn’t only center on football. Pat, now 15, sometimes confides in George. Once, while he was being home-schooled, Pat complained about the books his mom was assigning him to read.

‘‘George told him, ‘My mom made me do that too,’ ’’ Melody recalled, noting that George’s influence encouraged Pat to read the books. ‘‘He’s a great mentor to Pat, and he doesn’t have an air about him.’’

Although he’s taking over the Bears, McCaskey isn’t looking to make sweeping changes.

‘‘Our family has complete faith in Ted Phillips,’’ he said, referring to the longtime president and CEO. ‘‘He’s firmly in control of the day-to-day operations. I’m not going to interfere with that. I don’t see a need to put a particular stamp or imprint, just for the sake of doing something.’’

McCaskey also reiterated that the Bears won’t lay off any employees and that pay cuts would only happen if games are lost due to the labor dispute.

‘‘From a business perspective,’’ he said, ‘‘our people are our best resource.’’

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