Happy birthday, Vince Pesky
A PORTLAND TREASURE TURNS 94
Vincent Joseph Charles Paveskovich is a popular guy, but he had an unusual number of visitors for lunch Thursday at Regency Park assistant living facility in Southwest Portland.
Paveskovich -- known in these circles as Vince Pesky -- was celebrating his 94th birthday.
"My birthday is not today, it's tomorrow," Pesky told anyone who would listen.
Tomorrow comes soon enough, though, and one of Portland's living treasures can't fight the fact that he's growing older.
"Every day gets me closer to Mount Calvary," cracked Pesky, the reference to his paid-for plot at a nearby cemetery.
Pesky is most well-known as the younger brother of Johnny Pesky, the "Mr. Red Sox" who died at age 93 in 2012. But Vince has carved his own niche as an athlete, coach, educator and avid sports fan, moving him close to his bro's iconic status in the Portland community.
Vince Pesky played four years of baseball and hockey at Lincoln High and was a member of a Cardinals team that won four straight Portland Interscholastic League championships in the latter sport. He pitched for four years at the University of Portland and played two years of minor league ball in the New York Yankees organization before returning to coach at his alma mater in 1950, guiding the Pilots to an 11-9 record.
Pesky then launched into a 44-year career as a coach and educator/administrator for Portland Public Schools, retiring in 1998 at age 77. He is now a member of the PIL Sports Hall of Fame.
In the 1960s, Pesky worked as penalty timekeeper for the Western Hockey League Portland Buckaroos.
"I guess I'm the oldest living Buckaroo," he said proudly.
Vince had fun Friday with his friends over lunch and birthday cake, smiling after opening businessman Jimmy Pasero's present -- a wrapped version of "The Johnny Pesky Story" that Vince had loaned him three years ago. He chuckled when attorney Mark O'Donnell said he'd told someone it's nice Pesky has lived so long, "but it's just proof that only the good die young."
"It's nice when you can laugh," said Pesky, hard of hearing but lucid of mind. "You people make me laugh."
Vince recently sold the home on Northwest 24th Avenue and Overton Street his family owned since 1939, and he has lived in the suburbs for a year, but he's a Portland guy.
"I'll tell ya, I wish I were back out doing things in the city," he said. "I feel like I'm still young enough to do things. At 94 years of age, though, the mind is willing but the back is weak. But I can't complain."
Pesky was one of six children -- three boys and three girls -- of Jakob and Maria Paveskovich. Brothers Tony and Johnny and sisters Ann and Millie are gone. Sister Catherine, who lives at Marysville Nursing Home in Beaverton, celebrated her 100th birthday on May 10.
"My sister can tell you a few things," said Vince, who can, too. "She's still sharp upstairs.
"People ask, 'How do we do it?'" Pesky said, meaning to remain vital at an advanced age. "In our days, the folks would say, 'Eat a lot of garlic and onions. That'll keep everybody away from you.'"
Pesky was born in 1921 in the Northwest Portland neighborhood called "Slabtown," named in the 1870s when a lumber mill opened on Northwest Northrup Street. His parents were Croatian immigrants who came to America for a better life in the second decade of the 20th century. Jakob worked in the sawmills before dying of lung cancer at age 53.
"My dad came first from Croatia," Pesky said. "He flew to New York, then decided to go to St. Louis, where all (the Croatian immigrants) were. There was no work, so he came out and got a job in the sawmills of the Northwest. It was no piece of cake, but you have to work for what you get and appreciate what people do to help you. That's the way I've always looked at it."
Vince grew up as a child of the Depression in a blue-collar household. It was a hardscrabble existence, but the Paveskovichs -- a close-knit Catholic family -- made out fine.
"The folks always provided meals on the table," Vince said. "You may not always get three a day, but you had a warm house and you had the spirit of working to help each other. Nothing went to waste. We had a big yard in the back that had blackberry vines. In the summer, we'd pick blackberries and strawberries and my mom would make jam and jelly. It was good era of growing up, but you had to work for what you got. Nothing was given to you.
"Mom was a strict disciplinarian. Johnny used to like to make fudge. She'd say to Johnny, 'Too much chocolate, too much milk.' He'd say, 'OK, Ma,' but he still made it. I remember one night he put the fudge out so it would cool down, and some cat walked through it. We laughed and laughed.
"Mom was such a good cook, and so was my sister Ann. Mom would have been a great sister nun. She could write Croatian on paper and talk the language. Some of the old guys who worked in the lumber mills would come into town and ask her to write a letter back home. That was pretty damn good of her. She could talk, write and make the people from here feel like they were back in the old country."
Vince tells a story about a black childhood friend, Billy Bell, who became a member of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.
"Johnny invited Billy to come home with him sometimes," Vince said. "Mom would make bread every Tuesday and Friday. If we got there at 3 o'clock as the bread was coming out of the oven, she'd cut the two ends off and give them to us."
At one point, the Peskys taught Billy how to ask for bread or an apple in the Croatian tongue.
"In World War II, he got shot down over Croatia," Pesky said. "As the parachute came down, they had the guns pointed on him. In desperation, Billy yelled at them (in Croatian), 'Give me bread, give me an apple." They said, 'Who's this black guy speaking our language?' They put him underground, and he survived.
"Billy came back after the war and said, 'Johnny, if I hadn't learned the language from you and your folks, I probably would have been dead.'"
As students at St. Patrick's Grade School, Johnny and Vince were denizens of Vaughn Street ballpark and the Marshall Street Ice Arena. Johnny was clubhouse boy and Vince bat boy for the baseball Beavers. Johnny was clubhouse boy and Vince stick boy for the hockey Eagles and Penguins. When he was 12, Vince suffered a serious injury at Vaughn Street.
"They had a sliding window above the area where they hung up the uniforms," Pesky said. "I went to close it and I stepped on a tray and went fanny over teakettle through the window. Broke my nose, some teeth and both arms. From that point on, I had to use my fingers to throw a baseball, so I became a curveball specialist."
Pesky modestly calls himself "average" as a baseball player.
"I wasn't a big guy," he said. "I didn't have the speed like Johnny."
Vince was good enough to pitch four seasons for the Pilots, then go 6-4 with a 5.32 ERA in 22 games with Class C Ventura, Calif., in 1948. The next year, he played 10 games as an outfielder with Victoria, B.C., in B ball before turning to a career in education.
Johnny, meanwhile, became of the greats in Red Sox history after shortening his surname.
"When Johnny joined the Navy with Ted Williams, Papa said, Why you change the name to Johnny Pesky?'" Pesky said. "Johnny told him, 'Papa, the name fits better into a box score.' Papa asked, 'What's a box score?' Johnny told him it was a baseball statistic, and my dad said, 'Go get a good job.'"
Vince still holds his famous brother in reverence.
"Johnny was awfully good to me," Vince said. "He was very gracious as our brother. He'd always say, 'Vincie, behave yourself. Don't do that.' That was good advice.
"Ask (ex-Red Sox great) Nomar Garciaparra about Johnny. Johnny would go out of his way to have little talks with Nomar. He'd say, 'You're in the big leagues now. Everybody wants a piece of you. Choose your friends wisely. Look out.' Nomar said, 'If there was ever a guy that was like my father, it's Johnny.'
"I wish Johnny were still around. We could talk baseball and hockey. We were as close as brothers could be."
Pesky coached only one season of baseball at his college alma mater -- with no salary.
"They wanted me to come back," he said. "I said, 'I'd like to get paid.' They said, 'We're the Christian brothers from Notre Dame.' I said, 'Thank you, but I have to make a living.'"
Pesky began his career with Portland Public Schools with one year at Irvington Grade School.
"Be sure to congratulate teachers who teach first grade," he said with a laugh. "They've got a load to carry."
Pesky then spent a year at Lincoln and four at Jefferson -- he coached future Heisman Tophy winner Terry Baker for a short time in junior varsity baseball -- before working 38 years at Marshall, serving as vice principal for many years and ending as an administrative assistant. Through many of the years, he was in charge of discipline.
"Had some tough kids but some great kids," he said. "I had two kids who became pro fighters, the Sullivan boys, Tom and John. They'd come into my office, I'd say, 'I'm going to try to help you, but you have to help me. When you go to class, keep your mouth shut and listen. You might learn something.' They'd say, 'OK, coach.'
"After they graduated, their mother was so happy, she said, 'I could give you a kiss and hug. If it wasn't for you, my kids wouldnt have gotten through.' She was so proud that they graduated."
Pesky has no children and never married, though he came close as a young man.
"I met a sweetheart of a young girl," he said. "I could have married her and helped her father in his business, but I wanted to teach and coach. She was the loveliest girl you could ever come across.
"I made my decision. I'll tell you, in the Catholic faith, I did a lot of praying. 'Lord, help me do the right thing.' So I must have done the right thing. All those years in education, working with those wonderful people."
Pesky is thankful for the influences he had growing up in Slabtown.
"The nuns and the priests at St. Patrick taught me there's a right way of doing things," he said. "Wade Williams and Dave Wright, a couple of the teachers from Lincoln High, they said, 'Kid, get an education. Don't spend all your time at the Ice Arena.'
"Wade used to bring his Buick up there and come and get us kids if we weren't in class the first couple of hours. He'd say, 'You want to play baseball for me, youve got to be in class and get the credits.' There was always somebody there with the right advice. There were teachers and administrators to help you keep your nose clean."
Pesky paid that forward over more than four decades in education. Brother Johnny had a bigger name, but Vince has made his mark, too, as an athlete, coach, administrator and cherished citizen of the City of Roses.