It was love at first sight. As if the heavens opened, the sun broke through the clouds, and bluebirds sang their morning song.
Pauletta Overbeck was smitten by a stranger.
Why she felt the immediate emotional attachment wasn’t exactly clear to her. Not even many years later.
“I don’t know, I can just now feel him standing next to me,” she said, speaking about it in 2015 as she sat in a quiet room at the Sacred Heart Convent in Springfield.
It was easy to believe her. Who dares doubt a century-old Dominican nun?
Rewind to 2003. An anti-gambling activist, Sister Pauletta was 88 at the time. That was when she fell, chastely, for an ex-Chicago Mafioso 33 years her junior. “I just wanted to hug him,” she said.
His name was William “B.J.” Jahoda. Physically imposing, he looked like a cross between the old actors Karl Malden and Walter Matthau and had the panache of a Damon Runyon.
For years, Jahoda had been the genius behind the Chicago mob gambling enterprise run by Ernest “Rocky” Infelise. Jahoda set the odds for the sports betting business that netted the Outfit millions of dollars in the late 1970s and 1980s. He drove men to their deaths. Robert Plummer and Hal Smith were independent bookies who ran afoul of the Outfit and paid for it with their lives. Jahoda didn’t kill them. He just, on Rocky’s orders, delivered them.
Tired of the life and worried that he, too, could fall victim to Infelise’s deadly rule, in the late 1980s Jahoda flipped. He became a government witness and wore a wire. And he was not just any witness. His testimony was responsible for the conviction of 19 Chicago mobsters.
“I don’t believe that I’ve had any witness, in fact, I know I have not had any witness that has been as successful in providing a firsthand view of how people truly involved in organized crime take society’s laws and human life so cheaply,” the late Mitchell Mars, then a federal prosecutor, said at Jahoda’s sentencing in 1993.
U.S. District Judge Ann Williams agreed and spared Jahoda prison time for his crimes.
Jahoda joined the federal witness security program, which gave him a new identity and sent him, for his protection, far away from home. It was during that exile that, ironically, he became a fierce anti-gambling advocate. That is what brought him into the orbit of Sister Pauletta in Springfield in 1997.
Sister Pauletta had seen men like Jahoda before. “I’ve had a little contact,” she said after a brisk jaunt through the convent with her walker. She was dressed in a long, white habit and short black veil, and she wore a contagious smile.
Sister Pauletta grew up in the tiny hamlet of Dieterich in southern Illinois, where her mother ran a small boarding house. It was a crossroads train-stop town where almost no one had a car. But once a year, in the fall, “There were people who would come from Chicago during the hunting season and stay at our hotel,” she remembered. They drove cars with bulletproof windows. “A gang from Chicago,” she whispered. “So I know these kinds of people.”
At barely five feet tall, with an angular face and bright, inquisitive eyes, Pauletta Overbeck was 17 when she joined her order. She served in Crystal Lake, Duluth, Minnesota, and San Diego before returning to central Illinois. Among her talents was her great insight.
“My mother was a very perceptive person,” she said, adding that it was a trait passed on to her, a gift that served her well on the day the former mob bookmaker arrived at her door.
It was Jan. 6, 1997, a Monday, when Bill Jahoda and Tom Grey, a United Methodist minister, made the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago. Grey and Sister Pauletta knew each other from their efforts to stop the expansion of state-sanctioned gambling in Illinois. Grey and Jahoda were scheduled to speak at a news conference at the state capitol and to attend an anti-gambling conference. Jahoda was traveling under an alias, “Sonny.” That was it. Not even a last name.
“Everything was hush-hush,” Sister Pauletta said. “Nobody was to know that he was coming.”
In his past life, Jahoda had been to Springfield plenty of times, hosting parties for the mob at a downtown hotel. He knew people, and people knew him, which led to the dilemma of where to stay. Tom Grey asked if they might hide the ex-gangster overnight in the convent.
“I said yes, and that’s how I was blessed,” Sister Pauletta recalled.
She took “Sonny” to his apartment in the first-floor guest quarters of the convent, and, as they peered out the living-room window, they began to talk.
“I can still see him standing at the window… We were standing there, and he pointed at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel. And he says, ‘That’s where I used to go to plan all the parties for the gang before they would get here. And I would have everything set up. And then I would move on, and then they would come.’”
Did she have a sense he was a troubled man?
She paused. “No… I didn’t sense that with him. And I can with people. I knew that he was a man who had been around.”
Did she know that Jahoda had been an altar boy? “Ah,” she said with a smile.
Did she feel there was a redemptive quality about him?”
“Oh, yes, oh, yes,” she said quickly.
She really believed he wanted to change his life?
A trinity of “oh, yeses” followed. “I felt that he had changed his life.”
Just one conversation made such an impression?
“For me, it did,” she said then, in 2015. And using the present tense, she added, “I love him.”
On the morning of his departure, they had breakfast. And then Sister Pauletta left a note for Tom Grey and “Sonny.” It said:
“I can do so little but…you do not pay.
“You and Sonny are my guests.
“Do not make your beds; that is part of my little way of saying, Thank You for all you are and do.”
A few days later, a gift arrived for Sister Pauletta from the Bluebird House of Terra Studios in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The inscription on the card carried Jahoda’s real initials.
“To Sister Pauletta the Fighting Dominican. It is traditional that a bluebird close by will bless you with good health and happiness. I hope this is true. I wish this for you. From The Two Blue Birds, Tom and B.J.”
Having no address for Jahoda, she wrote this to Rev. Tom Grey:
“I love my bluebirds, so symbolic of you and B.J. There you are, Tom, sitting atop this ‘cracked up world’ proclaiming openly a song of freedom as you hold a fragment of this broken world. B.J. is there supporting you even though it is undercover. I thank God for both of you and pray traveling mercies, wisdom, and safety as you go about ‘singing in the dark’ as you wait for the Son to awaken its people.
“God bless you always in all ways. Come again!
Jahoda, an inveterate letter writer, left the convent with a gift as well. He’d asked Sister Pauletta for some stationery from the Sacred Heart Convent of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield. He had a plan to write a note to the Outfit that he’d left behind. “The boys will never believe it,” he said, laughing.
“God loved him,” Sister Pauletta said.
How do you know, she was asked?
“I just know,” she said. “I always talk about praying, healing [our] memories. Going back in your own background and healing the ancestral stuff that you inherited.”
There was a transformation in his life, she said. “And so he becomes a wounded healer. The thing that wounded him, he set out to heal in other people.”
It was Jahoda, in an earlier interview, who spoke of the pain he had caused.
“I never meant to hurt anybody. It just happened that way,” Jahoda said of his life. “It’s just the way things evolved and the way they are. It’s just a human story about human nature.”
Bill Jahoda died in 2004. But the memory of the mobster lived on in Sister Pauletta’s mind and heart for the remainder of her own life. Until her death this past Oct. 13, at the age of 103.
“There were two Jahodas,” Sister Pauletta had said, “as in all of us.”
Carol Marin is a former Sun-Times columnist. Don Moseley is a longtime NBC5 producer.