A childhood to remember -- and to forget.
By Robert G. Kaiser
Christmas night 1961: Gerald S. J. Cassidy, still two decades away from wealth and influence as a Washington lobbyist, was home from Villanova University. It was his junior year. Home was Fresh Meadows, Queens, a neighborhood of row houses and apartments in New York City.
Throughout his childhood "home" had been an uncertain concept for Cassidy. His parents' relationship was rocky, money a constant issue. Gerry was moved around the family "from house to house," he said in an interview, "living with who could afford me.... I remember evictions... repossessions, things you never forget." He had three much older sisters, the youngest a dozen years older than he.
Before he was 10 he had twice been sent to live with his beloved oldest sister, Delores, in Dallas, each time for stretches of two years. He started school there in a Catholic elementary school. He came back to New York the second time with a touch of a Texas accent.
"The kids made fun of me.... Some of the older kids were picking on me one day and started to punch me around, so I ran for our apartment. It was after school so [my father] was home by then and was looking out the window, watching me run. I ran up to the second floor and the door's open, so I think I'm going to run in and be saved. He closed the door and locked it. And I got beat up outside the door. Eventually he opened the door, the kids ran away, he pulled me inside and he told me, 'I don't want to ever, ever see you run away from anybody.'."
On that Christmas night in 1961 Cassidy's sister Joan and her two kids appeared unexpectedly at their mother's apartment. Joan's husband had gotten drunk at his family's Christmas celebration and had beaten his wife and both children when they got home -- far from the first time this had happened. "They were just in bad shape and hysterical," Cassidy said.
The devoted kid brother set off angrily for his brother-in-law's second-floor apartment. "I had it out with him. I wanted him to leave the apartment so I threw him out and actually threw him down the stairs. Neighbors called the police." The police were about to arrest Cassidy for felonious assault when a priest named John Coffey, a distant cousin, appeared on the scene.
The priest tried to explain the situation to the police: The man who had been thrown down the stairs was a drunk who beat his wife and kids; this young man was the wife's devoted kid brother; if you arrest him he'll lose his scholarship to Villanova, his life will be ruined. The cops yielded; Cassidy escaped arrest.
Cassidy persuaded his sister to file charges. He found her a lawyer in the neighborhood. The lawyer got a restraining order against the husband, then got her a divorce.
Jack Cassidy, the man Gerry Cassidy thought was his father, had been a boxer and a chief petty officer in the Navy. After the Navy he worked as a stevedore until he could no longer do the heavy lifting and became a messenger. He was a pugnacious, gloomy Irishman and "a very traditional Catholic [who] believed that life was a vale of tears that you went through to your reward in the next life," as Gerry Cassidy described him. Jack told his son college would be a waste of time -- he knew people who could help Gerry get a good union job as a boilermaker or an operator of heavy equipment.
But Cassidy was determined to prevail over his difficult childhood and Jack Cassidy's low expectations. His mother encouraged him. "My mother always said I was going to college, period." He was admitted to Villanova in Philadelphia, hoping he would have a football scholarship. That didn't happen, but the Augustinian friars at Villanova helped out with an academic scholarship; a heavy schedule of outside work, mostly physical labor, paid for the rest. Cassidy was actually able to send some money home to his mother while paying his way through college.
Before college, Cassidy had been shaped by an unusual high school experience, recalled Philip Costanzo, one of his closest pals. They attended Holy Cross, an all-boys academy that Costanzo and Cassidy both entered in the first year of its existence, 1955. For the next four years, they remained the oldest kids in the school as it grew by one grade each year. "We were masters of the manor for four years," said Costanzo, a professor of psychology at Duke University for the last 30 years. Their class produced college presidents, police chiefs, business executives, leaders of many kinds -- not a coincidence in Costanzo's view.
Costanzo described the prevailing ethos at Holy Cross, taught by the fathers on the faculty: "You can be self-seeking as long as you take care of others." Even in school he knew his friend Gerry wanted to be rich, but he also expected him to look after family, friends and less fortunate people. "And that's what he did."
The teenage Cassidy was a wise guy, an adventurer and a risk-taker. He drove a car before his classmates. His Uncle Jack, his mother's brother, let him use his red and white Oldsmobile 88. He drove a little crazily, Costanzo remembered, but if you complained he'd open the door and threaten to jump out of the car -- while it was moving. Once the guys in their gang got angry at the McConnell sisters, twins who had snubbed one of them. "We drove up to Connecticut and stole signs from the Merritt Parkway to put on the McConnells' front lawn," Costanzo said.
Cassidy was a football player, a linebacker on defense and fullback on offense. He had talent. Holy Cross had a good team, but Cassidy was disqualified in his senior year; at nearly 19, he was too old for high school football. His years of being shuffled around from relative to relative and school to school had slowed his academic progress. So in his last year he played semi-pro sandlot football with older guys. "I still did pretty well," he remembered. The Villanova coach recruited him, but Cassidy misunderstood the offer. He went to Villanova thinking he had a football scholarship; in fact he had to make the team first, and there were too many good players that year.
"It was the thing I most wanted to do. If you could take everything else I've done in my life and roll it up into a ball, the thing I would have liked to have done was that."
Costanzo was also a football player who didn't make the team. The two of them were roommates and helped get each other through school. It was a lark, as Costanzo remembers it. They worked hard at outside jobs, mowing lawns and pruning trees, or loading trucks. And they played hard, too.
"Gerry and I used to get dressed to the teeth. We got imitation nice suits. Gerry always liked to dress well. We'd go out to the best restaurants in Philadelphia with an umbrella on our arms. We'd eat an elegant dinner at Bookbinder's, leave a nice tip and beat the check. We did that all over Philadelphia."
In his sophomore year Cassidy met a pretty girl who was trying to find a conference that was being held on the Villanova campus. "It was October 1, 1960," Cassidy remembered. "She was beautiful." Loretta Palladino had graduated from high school the year before and was working full time as a secretary. Cassidy fell for her hard.
Pursuing her was a challenge. Loretta's Italian-American family was suspicious of the Irishman from New York. "Dating her you had to have her home at ten," Cassidy remembered. "Her mother would sit at the front door, waiting for you to come in." Her family provided stark contrast to his own: loving, stable, sober. "Both her parents were one of 12. Both families lived in the same neighborhood. You could walk to everybody's house from where they lived in South Philly. They were just tight as they could be." Cassidy had vague dreams about his future. He and Costanzo talked about becoming professors, though neither really understood what that would entail. And Cassidy had long toyed with the thought of becoming a lawyer, although he had never known one and "had no particular interest in it." Lawyer sounded good, however. Lawyers were important people.
He took the law boards and the graduate record exam. Cornell Law School admitted him with a scholarship, which sounded impressive. He and Loretta moved to Ithaca, N.Y., and began planning to get married. And then a kind of lightning bolt struck.
To get a marriage license, Cassidy needed a birth certificate. He asked his mother for the document. Cassidy had no idea that this simple request would force his mother to finally let go of a dark family secret. As the birth certificate starkly recorded, Jack Cassidy was not his real father. That, it turned out, was someone named Gerald McIntyre.
For Cassidy this was a heavy blow, disorienting and disheartening, the more so because of his strained and violent relationship with Jack Cassidy. He dropped out of Cornell Law School and moved back to Queens. He and Loretta did get married, but for a time he felt stymied. He worked as an insurance adjuster for Liberty Mutual, a job he hated. "I decided in favor of every claimant that came along," he recalled.
Cassidy never met or even saw Gerald McIntyre, whose first name he has carried through life. He learned later that his real father had lived in Queens until he died in 1972, when Cassidy was 32 years old, but McIntyre never made any effort to meet his son and namesake. It wasn't easy for Cassidy to come to terms with his real father's indifference.
When Cassidy and Loretta got married in 1963, Costanzo was best man. "Loretta was an important ballast point for Gerry," Costanzo recalled. "He was less mercurial around Loretta than usual. She loved him; he really loved her." With her encouragement he tried Cornell again the next year, and stuck it out, unenthusiastically.
"I thought it was really boring," Cassidy said of law school. But it was his ticket to a larger world, and he wanted to make the trip. He and Loretta lived in graduate student housing; she worked as a secretary for three years. He worked, too, in the Cornell library and on beer trucks both summers.
The spirit of the '60s reached Cassidy at Cornell. Edward R. Murrow's famous documentary on hunger, "Harvest of Shame," had affected him. So did some of the fiery rhetoric he heard on campus. "There wasn't a lot to do there. We went to a lot of lectures." One visiting speaker who impressed him was Edgar Cahn, who with his wife, Jean, helped establish the legal services program under the Office of Economic Opportunity, the agency that waged Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.
Cassidy always knew he wanted to make money. But his Catholic education and the speakers he heard at Cornell had put ideas in his head. He interviewed with a couple of big New York law firms, got no job offers and decided to accept a job in Florida with a new program called South Florida Migrant Legal Services, which would provide legal assistance to migrant workers, on the Edgar Cahn model. The salary was $125 a week.
He took the Florida bar exam right after graduating from Cornell, in the summer of 1967. "I expected it to be much harder than it was." He and Loretta rented a house on the river in Fort Myers and began a new chapter in their lives.Washington Post research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: Cassidy's good works for migrant workers in Florida open the way to doing well in Washington.
An overview of Gerald Cassidy's life and career.
A "cast of characters" in the life and career of Gerald Cassidy.
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