BY NEIL HAYES
Special to the Sun-Times
They never dreamed they would remain this close for this long, and yet, as the third Tuesday of the month nears, they find themselves making plans to meet again.
The Honey Bears soon will reach a dubious anniversary. It has been 29 years since the Bears’ cheerleading squad was disbanded after the 1985 season, but the memories remain vivid and the friendships stronger than ever.
‘‘A lot of us didn’t go away to college, or we went to college but we didn’t go away,’’ said Ginamarie Woldman, who is among a half-dozen former Honey Bears who meet once a month to laugh about old times and support each other through life’s triumphs and trials.
‘‘This is my sorority. These are my sorority sisters.’’
Cathy Core had only recently moved to Chicago from New Jersey when, in 1976, she received what she thought was a crank phone call at the credit union where she worked. A man who introduced himself as Jim Finks asked if she could help start a cheerleading squad.
Since her only coaching experience had been helping out with a high school squad affiliated with her church, she assumed it was a practical joke and hung up on the Bears general manager.
Cheerleaders were the idea of owner George Halas himself, who said there would be ‘‘dancing girls’’ on the sideline as long as he was alive.
Young women from all over the Chicago area tried out for the job: cheering at eight home games and one road game every season while also making special appearances.
‘‘The Bears were not doing very well back then,’’ said Core, who met her former charges at Hollywood Palms in Naperville recently. ‘‘They needed something to take the pressure off how bad the team was. They needed some entertainment besides the game.’’
The Honey Bears would become so popular that they had their own clothing line at J.C. Penney and a talent agency was used to book their appearances.
‘‘It was a group of celebrities the city hadn’t known before,’’ Joey Hogan said. ‘‘We had sports figures, but we didn’t have female sports figures. If you had one sports figure at an event, it was a big to-do, but if you have 10 or 15 women come in shorts and boots, they would fill the room in a second.’’
‘‘We were treated as celebrities,’’ Linda Hutcheson said. ‘‘You never waited in line or paid for a drink. It was great.’’
Halas passed away in 1983, and soon the writing was on the wall. His daughter, Virginia, didn’t approve of the Honey Bears, who made their last appearance at Super Bowl XX.
‘‘Jerry Vainisi and Jim Finks called us in for a meeting and told us very politely that they were not going to renew our contact moving forward,’’ Core said. ‘‘They said they would like us to not say anything to the press, and then at the end of the 1985 season, that would be the end of the Honey Bears. You’ve got to be kidding. They were the best thing that ever happened to the city at the time. We were devastated.
‘‘We went out to lunch. We got plastered. I don’t even remember anything after the fourth bourbon. And, stupidly, we kept it quiet and never said a word to anybody.’’
Core went on to choreograph the Luvabulls for 29 years before being presented with a lifetime achievement award from the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame earlier this year. But her license plate still reads, ‘‘MA BEAR.’’
She has no explanation for why these Honey Bears remain so tight-knit all these years later. What started out as an occasional reunion or holiday meal occurred increasingly more frequently until they became monthly events everyone looks forward to.
They discuss love and heartbreak, the challenges of raising children and having a career. Now that their children are having children, they remain there for each other, month after month, year after year.
‘‘We connected under her direction,’’ Jackie Thurlby said of Core, ‘‘and we never wanted to lose that connection.’’