Hamill: Man teaches Irish immigrant father how to read with Daily News

July 13, 2014
Originally published in: New York Daily News
Written by Denis Hamill

When Joe Cahalan Jr. was 14, he learned his father could not read. Using the Daily News, which his father picked up every night, Cahalan Jr. was able to give him the gift of literacy.

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Many parents help their children learn to read, but for Joe Cahalan Jr., it was the other way around.

And these pages played a vital role.

Cahalan is now the CEO of Concern Worldwide, a charity started in the 1960s by two Irish priests. They believed the best way to memorialize those lost to the Great Irish Famine of the mid-1800s was to help feed the hungry of Biafra after the Nigerian civil war.

“I was raised by two Irish immigrants whose lives were changed by the kindness of two strangers,” says Cahalan. “That kindness, by extension, changed my life for the better. So I always wanted to work helping others.”

His mother, Mary, came to New York from County Cavan and his father, Joseph Sr., from Tipperary in the late 1920s.

“My mom took a job as a live-in maid for a rich Wall Street banker named William Pell,” he says. “My dad was a landscaper. I think he met my mom at a church dance. But when my mom told Pell that she was getting married, he insisted on meeting my dad. My dad was a humble guy who was as respectful to a janitor as he was to a judge.”

Pell liked Joe Cahalan Sr. so much that he offered him a job in his bank.

“My dad said he had no banking experience,” says Cahalan.

So Pell hired Joe Sr. as a greeter.

“My dad was so well-liked in the bank that a very wealthy customer named Isaac Brokaw, who had made his fortune in textiles, offered him a job as caretaker at his mansion on 1 E. 79th St., at the corner of Fifth Ave.,” says Cahalan. “The position included a garden apartment for our family. And every night at 7:30, my dad would meet all the local building supers at the nearby subway stop to wait for the Nite Owl edition of the Daily News. Then he would come home and spread the Daily News on the kitchen table and spend exactly 45 minutes thumbing through it from the front to the back page.”

Joe Sr. became a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and Joe Jr. rooted for the Yankees, sparking a friendly family rivalry.

“But I started to notice that my dad wouldn’t know all the facts of the game even after reading the Daily News stories,” says Cahalan. “I started to suspect that he might not be able to read. When I saw my mother fill out his driver’s license renewal application I became more suspicious. But he sent me to Xavier High for a Jesuit education, which implores you to leave the world a better place than you found it.”

In the summer of 1956, when Cahalan was 14, his father took him fishing in the Poconos.

“We were out on a rowboat on a lake, all alone,” he says. “I asked him point-blank if he knew how to read. My dad said, ‘Not so well.’ I said, ‘Dad, I am going to teach you how to read.’ ”

Young Cahalan then searched for the right tool to give his father the precious gift of literacy.

“My dad’s favorite TV show was ‘Dragnet,’ with that clipped, short dialogue and narration. So I turned to the Justice Story in the Sunday Daily News, which was written in the same simple, flowing prose. Over the next year, I used the Daily News to teach my father how to read, which changed his life.”

Cahalan tells this story in words and pictures on YouTube in “Above the Fold: Teaching my Father to Read.”

Cahalan Jr. went to Fordham University. In 1963, he won a scholarship from The News that was presented by publisher Francis J. (Jack) Flynn, an event captured in a photo published in the paper.

Cahalan spent 40 years working for the Xerox Foundation. Two years ago, he retired from Xerox and became CEO of Concern Worldwide, which aids the 40 poorest nations on the planet.

“I’ve seen many touching moments in my life,” he says, choking down a tear. “But nothing moved me so personally as seeing my father reading children’s books to my daughters Eva, Tina and Cara.”

On Aug. 6, 1975, Joe Cahalan Sr. went out at 7:30 p.m. to buy the night edition of The News.

“He wasn’t feeling so well that night, so he sat in his Chevy parked on the street for a while,” says Cahalan. “That’s where they found my dad later, dead at 68 of a massive heart attack. The Daily News that had changed his life was beside him on the passenger seat.”