When he was 14, Joe Cahalan Jr discovered his father, an Irish immigrant, could not read. For over a year, he used the Daily News to teach his father how to read.
Cahalan, who is now the CEO of Concern Worldwide, a charity started in the 1960s by two Irish priests, tells his story in words and pictures on YouTube in “Above the Fold: Teaching my Father to Read.”
Joseph Sr immigrated to New York from Tipperary in the late 1920s. Joe Jr’s mother Mary came from County Cavan.
“I was raised by two Irish immigrants whose lives were changed by the kindness of two strangers,” said Cahalan.
“That kindness, by extension, changed my life for the better. So I always wanted to work helping others.”
“My mom took a job as a live-in maid for a rich Wall Street banker named William Pell,” he said, according to the Daily News.
“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 and offered him a job in his bank 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.”
While Joe Sr. became a Brooklyn Dodgers fan his father rooted for the Yankees.
“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.’ ”
Cahalan says he searched for the right tool to teach his father to read.
“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.”
“I’ve seen many touching moments in my life,” he says. “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 at 7:30 p.m., Joe Cahalan Sr. went out 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.”