Cliff Christl started gathering oral histories with former Packers and others associated with the team in 2000 and will continue to gather them as Packers historian. Excerpts from those interviews will be periodically posted at www.packers.com
Fifty years ago, Mary Jane Van Duyse was engaged to Curly Lambeau when he died on the front lawn of her family’s home in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Lambeau, 67, died of a heart attack June 1, 1965. Mary Jane was roughly half his age.
Now a widow, Mary Jane Sorgel stills owns the home at 522 Michigan St. where Lambeau died and would like to erect a plaque on the front lawn. Prior to becoming engaged to Lambeau, Van Duyse was a drum majorette for the Packers’ Lumberjack Band.
Around the same time she and Lambeau met, she also was asked by Vince Lombardi to organize a squad of cheerleaders to perform at Packers games. Van Duyse, a one-time national champion baton twirler, had been dubbed “The Golden Girl” after performing at a Packers-Bears game in Wrigley Field, and she, in turn, named her cheerleaders, The Golden Girls.
On her memories of June 1, 1965: “(Curly) was going to take me out to dinner that night. It was going to be a late dinner. My dad was mowing the lawn, and Curly got out of the car and started mowing. I was upstairs getting dressed. I came down the stairs and heard my mother yelling, “Curly.” He had fallen into my dad’s arms and so I ran out the door. My mother called (for an ambulance), and they came right away. One of the young fellas who was there, I just saw the other day and asked him if that would have happened today could they have brought Curly back to life? He said, ‘With our equipment now, he probably would have.’ It was such a shock. The doctor came and said he couldn’t do anything. He said, ‘He’s gone, Mary. He’s gone.’”
On the home at 522 Michigan St., where it happened: “I still own that house. I just couldn’t sell it. Curly died there, and we had our Golden Girls rehearsals out in front of our house. People would stop and watch. I still can’t sell it. I’ve rented it out. There was a horse and carriage here (in Sturgeon Bay) and that’s one of the places they stopped when they took people around to show them the city. I just had some men do some work there and when I saw the house, it looked just like when Curly died.”
On her dream of putting up a historical plaque in the front yard: “I’ve been trying to do it, but it has been difficult. I’m looking for someone to help me out financially.”
On her memories of Lambeau’s funeral, held four days after his death: “George Halas was there. I went down with my father and brother. And they put us in one of the first cars in the funeral procession. The first car was his sister and maybe his brother. I’m not sure, but we were right up in the front. Johnny Blood was there. Curly had introduced me to Johnny Blood, and he sat with me part of the time. He was so nice; I felt so bad. I was having a dance recital in Sturgeon Bay that same week and I had my show named, ‘Wedding in June.’ When it happened, I thought, ‘How ironic?’ It was really sad. (Curly) told me he didn’t feel well for quite awhile. Then he went to the doctor and had a physical, and they told him there was nothing wrong with him. But he said, ‘My stomach just doesn’t feel good.’ I never thought he was that sick.”
On whether it caused a stir when Halas attended the funeral, but Vince Lombardi didn’t: “I’ve heard some talk about it, but I never thought about it. You know, one time, my niece and I and Curly went to Milwaukee for a game. We went over to Pappy’s with Buckets (Goldenberg). We had just gotten to Milwaukee and in came Vince Lombardi. He and Marie came over and sat with us and talked. I didn’t know the situation. The game was the next day and we just ran over there to get a bite to eat. The Lombardis came in, and we had a real nice time.”
On whether friends and acquaintances were right who have said Lambeau wasn’t much of a drinker and smoked but didn’t inhale: “No, he didn’t drink much. He had one drink he’d always drink. I think it was a whiskey. He’d buy my dad some of that whiskey and they’d sit at our table and talk and talk. No (he didn’t smoke), not while I was around him. I bet he had quit.”
“My first game was 1949. I was like 15. My dad had a dance hall and a roller rink and a bar here (in Sturgeon Bay) and one night my mother had hired a band. I would go in as a young girl and twirl my baton. This man happened to be Wilner Burke from the Packer band. That’s how it started. He said, ‘I think you’d be good out on the Packer field.’ Then he asked if I’d audition. I asked my mother and she said, ‘Of course.’ So I auditioned and he put me on at the next game. I think Curly was coaching that day. Then in 1951, (Burke) put me on fulltime. In the early ’50s, I did a lot of things. They used to have Packer Press Day in Stevens Point. I’d go up there, and they’d have a lot of photographers around. I’d go with the band to Milwaukee. In the ’50s, television came around and we were doing halftime shows. That was fun.” On becoming a drum majorette for the Packers’ Lumberjack Band:
On her nickname, “The Golden Girl:” “The Chicago Tribune, I think, named me the Golden Girl when I twirled in Chicago. I went out on the field, and they introduced me. I was going to do a solo. I threw the baton in the air and turned a cartwheel, but it was a difficult trick and I dropped it. The crowd was yelling, ‘Do it again. Do it again.’ So I thought I’ll show them. I did it again and perfect. I don’t remember which paper, and I never got a copy, but everybody started calling me that.”
On meeting Lambeau: “We were having dinner one night in Sturgeon Bay at the Nautical. My brother Fritz knew him and said, ‘Would you like to meet Curly Lambeau?’ I had been out with another fellow. But I went over there, and he was so much fun. I enjoyed our conversation so much. He said, ‘I want to take all of you over to the Yacht Club. We’ll all have dinner together.’ Then the next day, he invited my folks, Fritz and all of us up to his house. He had a beautiful place in Fish Creek. I have it written down somewhere. I think this was in the early ’60s.”
Actress Corinne Griffith, wife of Washington owner George Preston Marshall, once gushed that Lambeau was such “a pretty thing” when he was coaching the Redskins and whether she still found that to be true even when Curly was in his 60s: “Oh, he was very handsome. Dimples – he had dimples to die for.”
On doing a local TV show with Lambeau: “That’s how we really started to get to know each other. We did the ‘Ask Curly Lambeau’ television show. It was for WFRV.”
On Lambeau presenting her with an engagement ring: “He gave it to me in church. I said, ‘Curly!’ I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t going to be in my plans or his plans. He said, ‘I’d like you to have it anyway.’”
On whether they ever got serious about getting married: “It’s a long story. He did give me a ring. I didn’t know what to think about it. I wasn’t ready to take that ring. I didn’t know he was going to do that at that point. I told him, ‘Curly, we’re like friends.’ He said, ‘Just take the ring and use it as a cocktail ring.’ He was serious about it. I have the ring today. I kept it and my husband, Bill Sorgel, had Curly’s ring and put his ring in there, too. It was made into one ring.”
On whether Lambeau’s three divorces were the prohibiting factor: “He was a good Catholic and I was a good Catholic. My grandmother lived in a convent for a while. I knew Curly was a lot older than me, but he was a lot of fun. He liked Fritz and my other brother, and he was a friend of my folks. And he liked to watch the Golden Girls practice.”
On how the Golden Girls came about and how they wound up practicing on the front lawn of her parents’ home: “Before that, we had a group that did baton twirling and some dance routines. Then Vince Lombardi wondered if I could get some cheerleaders. That’s when I started the cheerleaders. I named them the Golden Girls because I had that name. I had a lot of (dance) students from Sturgeon Bay, and the Green Bay girls would come and rehearse also. We used to stop traffic. Once the governor stopped. Governor Knowles. He stopped in a limousine and came up to our house and shook hands with a lot of the mothers.”
On her impressions of Lombardi: “Very nice. Very friendly to me. I’d do a solo before the game and he’d look at me and say, ‘Good job.’ He was very much a perfectionist.”
On Marie Lombardi, Vince’s wife: “I was modeling one day at Prange’s. Marie stopped, and she was really good to me. She said, ‘You know, Mary, you should go to the Pro Bowl.’ I said, ‘I’ve never even been on an airplane.’ She said, ‘Well, I’m going to see what I can do.’ I said, ‘I can do it.’ She wanted me to do a solo act. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was until I got out there. Before the game, I met the band director and the whole group. The big stadium (Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles). This was when they had the game in California. Vince Lombardi was there. Curly Lambeau was there. When I got done twirling, they both told me I did really good.”
On the day Lambeau’s Fish Creek home was destroyed by fire: “I was modeling at Prange’s (in Green Bay). Curly gave my mom and I a ride down there that day. Someone told him (about the fire). He had a meeting with his brother-in-law, I believe. He was an attorney. (Curly) came running and puffing in there and said, ‘I’ve got to get home. My house is on fire. Can you two find another ride home?’ My mom said, ‘Just go Curly, we’ll find a ride.’ We had to take a boat, I remember that. Curly was really upset. He lost almost everything. By the time I got back that whole house had burned down.”
On whether Lambeau talked much about his three former wives: “Oh, yeah. He was still friendly with them. He’d bring me to Green Bay and Marguerite (his first wife) was working at Prange’s and so was I. I’d go down to do my modeling. She was so nice. She was a wonderful person, and Curly would bring things down for her. I talked to her a lot, too.”
On the two from California: “That one I didn’t meet. He told me a lot about her, but I never met her.”
On whether getting married to Curly was ever seriously in her plans: “I don’t know where I stood. I was a lot younger. But Curly didn’t seem that much older and he was a friend with my family. He tried to get a priest (to marry us) and almost had one. It was really hard. He had been married before. My family was very religious. But Curly really thought the world of me. I liked to swim, play golf, tennis – the twirling. He was always really nice. He played with my nieces and nephews. One time around Easter he brought baby bunnies over for them, and they had more fun.”
On how much time she and Curly were spending together before his death: “Quite a bit. He loved to watch the rehearsals with my girls. He’d come in and then ask me to go out to dinner. He asked my mom and dad to go out for dinner some of the time. He always called me ‘Champ.’”
On whether she ever joined him at his winter home in Palm Springs: “Not really. I was usually teaching (dance). But he’d write me letters. He didn’t go as much as he used to go. One year he didn’t stay long. But he didn’t like the snow, and he had a nice home out there.”
On whether she ever met Curly’s mother: “I did get to meet his mother. His mom was a really sweet lady. She was really nice to me. Older. She talked about Curly a lot. I was a good friend of his sister and brother-in-law, Francis Evrard. I knew his brother, Ollie.”
In hindsight, 50 years later, on whether she thinks Curly and her would have married at some point if he had lived longer: “Yes, I think so. If we had been able to get married in my religion, I think so. I was in the middle of not knowing what to do. That’s hard. I liked him a lot. He was lots of fun. I heard a lot of Packer stories, which I enjoyed. I respected him. Whenever we’d go to a restaurant, he’d never turn down someone for an autograph. He was always nice to the children.”
The former Mary Van Duyse, 82, lives in Sturgeon Bay. The excerpts above were taken from interviews conducted in 2011, 2013 and another one this week.
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