DECATUR — When the Chicago Bears first began planning an event in Decatur, they spoke to Staley Museum Director Laura Jahr.
The team wanted to hold a signing for their book, “Chicago Bears Centennial Scrapbook,” released in conjunction with the celebration of the NFL’s 100th season. But they weren't thinking big enough, and Jahr told them so.
“They said they wanted to have a signing and I said, ‘Oh no, you don’t understand,’” Jahr said. “‘This is much bigger than that.’”
What most people outside Decatur don’t know, but nearly everyone in Decatur does, is that the Chicago Bears franchise began as the Decatur Staleys. They were formed first as a factory team in 1919 by A.E. Staley, with player-coach George Halas, a former New York Yankees baseball player. The Staleys went on to become a professional team and one of the National Football League's original franchises; Halas moved the team to Chicago in 1921 and changed its name to the Chicago Bears in 1922.
Even though its been almost a century, Decatur is still staunchly a Bears town.
The Bears got the hint. They've already held a three-day fan convention in Rosemont as part of their 100th anniversary. Now, what began as a book signing in Decatur will be a two-day event on July 20-21. It starts with the Bears giving four Decatur high schools $3,000 each for their football programs during a football camp at Millikin, then continues with a presentation on the history of the Staleys/Bears at the Staley Museum on Saturday night. The schedule will conclude with a full-blown Bears festival on Sunday at the Decatur Civic Center, complete with Bears coach Matt Nagy, GM Ryan Pace and team chairman George McCaskey.
After talking with Jahr, the Bears were put in contact with the Decatur Convention and Visitors Bureau. Director Teri Hammel immediately grasped the event’s gravity, and got the Bears on board as well.
“Anytime we can turn an event into a two-day event that could mean an overnight stay, we’re going to do that,” Hammel said. “It’s great to be able to celebrate the Bears’ birthday with them. Once we talked to them and gave them some ideas that were maybe bigger than they’d originally been looking at, they were totally on board. They were thrilled.”
The weekend will begin with a moment outside the public eye — a football camp led by former Bears players at Millikin at which Decatur’s four high school football teams (Eisenhower, MacArthur, St. Teresa and Lutheran School Association) will each receive $3,000 for their football programs.
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On Saturday night at the Staley Museum, local historian Mark Sorensen will lead a discussion, “History of the Decatur Staleys,” from 6 to 9 p.m. The event is free to the public, but there's only space for around 100 people.
Sorensen was tasked in 2005 to find out exactly what the story was behind Decatur being the original home of the Chicago Bears, and now knows more about the Staleys than anyone alive. Sorensen got in contact with Tate & Lyle, searched Newspapers.com and Ancestry.com, and put together a history that can be found at the Staley Museum and its website, including biographies on every player.
While Saturday’s event will be a quiet one, Sunday will be a community-wide affair. With Pace, Nagy, McCaskey — George Halas’ grandson — and former Bears including Lance Briggs in attendance, it’ll be the biggest Bears celebration involving Decatur since “Staley Day” at Wrigley Field during the Bears’ game against the Colts on Oct. 21, 1956.
On that day, 500 Staley employees and their families attended the game, at which A.E. Staley Jr. and Halas spoke of Staley’s role in beginning the franchise.
“I’ve been here since 1969, and I forget things,” Sorensen said, “but I don’t recall there being anything else involving the Bears in Decatur since Staley Day."
Bill Deetz, 60, of Blue Mound, is the great-grandson of former Staley employee George Chamberlain, whom Staley had originally dispatched to hire Halas. Since finding out his connection to the Bears, he’s become fascinated with the team’s history and Decatur’s connection.
“I’m really excited about the Bears coming back to Decatur — it’s way overdue,” said Deetz, 60, who said he plans to attend and hopes to go with his nephew. “I’m glad they’re doing something like this, because people tend to forget they started here.”
This event, Sorensen said, will add a chapter to the Bears’ story in Decatur. Hammel said that was a big reason the DCVB wanted to give it a broad appeal.
“We tried to include history pieces that were important to the older fans, opportunity for the Bears to give back to the community, which helps bring in the high school kids, then there’s events for the little kids on Sunday, and things that interest fans of all ages,” Hammel said. “There’s plenty to connect with.”