By Burt Constable
The Daily Herald
After graduating from her all-girl high school in 1964, Cathy Core entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity on her path to becoming a nun.
On Friday night, Core, 68, of Wheaton, will be celebrating a different sort of life’s work when her sisters of the Chicago Honey Bears reunite at a charity event Friday in Addison.
“There’s just a sisterhood, and part of that sisterhood has to do with Cathy,” says Suzy Kopp-Jones of Bartlett, one of many alums of Core’s Honey Bears dance squad that roamed the sidelines at Chicago Bears football games a generation ago, and still remains close.
“It’s a pretty special little sorority,” says Jackie Nicholas Thurlby, a Naperville real estate agent and former Honey Bear, whose three children all boast Cathy Core and her husband Joe Core as their godparents. “The lives she’s impacted — you can’t count the numbers.”
Inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame last September before a crowd packed with cheering, former Honey Bears, Core also was in charge of the Chicago Bulls Luvabulls squad for 29 years until her retirement in 2013. She’s toured the globe with the Luvabulls, directed a host of other dance groups with Chicago’s professional sports teams, run camps for kids, and been a key part of many charity events. In the world of sports entertainment, she’d done everything, except make good on one girlhood dream.
“I always wanted to be a cheerleader,” Core says, “but the nuns decided differently.”
One of the nuns teaching at her high school in her hometown of Jersey City, N.J., wanted her to sing with the glee club instead of being a cheerleader, Core says. Core says just minutes before cheerleader tryouts, the nun sent Core to a closet to get supplies. Somehow, the door locked, and by the time Core was freed, she was too late for cheerleader tryouts.
Determined to scratch her cheerleading itch, Core coached the younger girls’ cheerleader squad at her school. Planning to study nursing after graduating from high school, Core moved into the Sisters of Charity convent in Morristown, N.J. But that wasn’t her calling. So she took a job as an office manager in the fledgling computer department at Pace University in New York, where she ended up coaching the university cheerleading squad.
She grew up on Bidwell Avenue in Jersey City, just a couple of blocks from her future husband, and they went to the same grade school and same Sacred Heart Catholic Church. But they didn’t meet until a young adults dance at their church.
A graduate of Seton Hall University, where he joined the ROTC, Joe was inducted into the Army in 1966, married Cathy on Feb. 4, 1967, and was assigned to duty for a year in Hawaii, where his bride picked up a few dance moves from her hula lessons. After a year in Vietnam, where he was awarded many medals, including a Bronze Star, Capt. Joe Core came home and started a career as a federal agent with the Treasury Department. The couple bought their home in Wheaton when he was transferred to Chicago in 1974. Reluctant to leave New Jersey, Cathy Core decided to make the best of things at her new home. She volunteered as the cheerleading coach for young girls at St. James the Apostle School in Glen Ellyn, and took a job at a teachers’ credit union in Westchester.
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders already had become a national institution when Chicago Bears owner George Halas decided his team should have “dancing girls.” A failed and quickly forgotten experiment with the Bear Essentials, a group of cheerleaders wearing long skirts and knee socks that revealed less skin than the players’ uniforms, led Bears brass to ask around the office for a real cheerleader coach. One woman suggested the cheerleader coach at her church’s school, and Bears General Manager Jim Finks gave Core a call.
“I thought it was someone playing a joke on me, so I laughed and told him I was Shirley Temple,” remembers Core, who didn’t recognize the names of Halas or Finks.
“The next day I answered the phone at the credit union and the voice on the other end said, ‘Shirley, this is Jim Finks. Can we talk?'” Core says.
She was never a cheerleader and her only formal dance lessons were in Irish step-dancing, but Core immediately found success with the Honey Bears as the squad’s director and choreographer.
“I’d do a lot of stuff at home. I’d have the music blasting and be sweating my buns off,” says Core, who admits to learning from her pupils. “I would listen to them. My talent was that I could see the big picture. I could tell right away if it was going to work.”
The first professional football game she attended, Core was on the sidelines directing a squad of 28 Honey Bears adorned in white “hot pants” and a vest that covered their midriffs and laced in the front. “When the girls first hit the field, the fans went crazy,” she remembers.
So did Bears management. At halftime, Core was given a note complaining that the dancers were showing too much cleavage, so Core had them lace up the front. When the Honey Bears came out for the second half with a more modest look, Core got a phone call on the sideline from Finks.
“What are you doing? The girls look like a bunch of nuns out there,” he told her.
“Jim won out,” says Core, who notes that the Honey Bears never showed as much skin as the cheerleading crews in Dallas or Miami. Those original members were required to be full-time students or have jobs. They were paid $5 a game that first season, but were in demand all year for personal appearances.
“I never thought the girls were being exploited. They were always treated with the utmost respect,” Core says, who eventually formed C.C. Company with her husband, and hired choreographers. “They (the Honey Bears) took great pride in their appearance, the way they handled themselves, their education, their talent.”
Making sure that the women adhered to strict behavior codes, including no fraternizing with the players, Core remembers firing a couple of Honey Bears for posing nude in magazines, and another for building a relationship with a player. She ran a tight ship.
“You learned how to be young women,” says Thurlby, who remembers being “scared to death” of doing something that would require a reprimand from Core.
“I still can’t chew gum,” says Kopp-Jones, recalling Core’s ban on gum.
After Halas died, the team soured on the Honey Bears. Their last game was Super Bowl XX on Jan. 26, 1986, in New Orleans.
“If you’re going out, that’s a great way to go out,” Core says. “And they haven’t won a Super Bowl since, I might add. The curse of the Honey Bears.”
Core took over the Luvabulls in 1984, and continued with the squad through the Michael Jordan years and six championships. She and her husband had Jordan sign a few items during the years, including a photo from his rookie season, just in case Jordan became famous someday. Jordan assured them he would.
In traveling around the world with the Luvabulls and other groups, the Cores became involved in A New Day Cambodia, a charity begun by sports photographer Bill Smith and his wife, Lauren. For the past decade, the Cores have been frequent visitors, financial and emotional supporters, and active “parents” for Samong, now 20, and her brother, Pov, 18.
“That’s been wonderful,” Joe Core says, noting so many of their friendships, travels and joys have grown out of the career that began when Cathy Core agreed to be the “Ma Bear” for the Honey Bears.
“I never thought I could tell you anything about football, and now I yell at (Bears quarterback Jay) Cutler like everybody else,” she says, adding that she’d like to see the Honey Bears revived. “I think the team needs a little something-something now.”
Core has gotten more from her career than she ever imagined.
“It’s phenomenal,” Cathy Core says of the relationships she and her husband have built. “Having these women in our lives has been the icing on the cake.”