Special Olympics

About 300 young athletes showed off their skills in such sports as swimming, gymnastics and volleyball during the opening of the first 1974 Northern Area Special Olympics on April 19, 1974. (James O'Leary / Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO – When Michael “Moose” Cusack was born in the Chicago Lying-in Hospital in 1956, doctors told his parents that something was wrong — he had Down syndrome. They advised: don’t bring him home. It was better to institutionalize him early, his parents were told.

John and Esther Cusack’s first step toward challenging the status quo was bringing their son home. They raised him, loved him and nurtured him the same as his four sisters.

Their support allowed Moose to become a champion.

As a 12-year-old, he competed at Soldier Field with a thousand other athletes, some swimming in an above ground 4-foot lap pool as others ran around a track at the first ever Special Olympics in 1968.

He won his first medal there: 25-yard freestyle swim, gold.

By the end of his career, the pioneering Special Olympics Chicago athlete had more medals and ribbons than he could wear at one time. He liked to win, but he didn’t brag.

His sisters planned to place those awards in a basket Tuesday at his wake, a tradition set by Moose’s peers from Marquette Park who died before him.

His loved ones can each take one home to remember Moose, who died at 64 of natural causes associated with Alzheimer’s disease Thursday  at Good Shepherd Manor, surrounded by his sisters and caregivers.

“It’s absolutely devastating because he really was such a gift to us,” said Connie McIntosh, Moose’s oldest sister.

“He was gentle. He was kind. He was unfailingly polite. He had a funny and wicked sense of humor. He embraced us all. He lived fully, and he was joyful. He was satisfied by simple things. He was loving and he embraced being loved. He made us better people.”

His father was a Chicago cop and his mother a homemaker. John and Esther Cusack couldn’t find a school option for Moose once he came of age, so they and a group of other parents decided they would have to make one.

The group rented a storefront in Bronzeville, McIntosh said. They hired a retired teacher to teach their children. Moose attended that school for several years before moving on to Chicago Public School’s Barnard Elementary.

A couple years after he started school, his father saw a newspaper article about how the Chicago Park District was beginning a pilot program for children with disabilities at West Pullman Park.

There, he met now-Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke, who recalls that she was then a 20-year-old Chicago Park District physical education teacher.

Burke volunteered in 1965 to lead one of the city’s 10 special education recreational programs, which were partially funded through a $10,000 grant from the Kennedy Foundation. Burke’s first job was to find children to teach at West Pullman Park.

Moose, around 10 years old, became her first student. He soon learned how to swim — and Burke learned to be careful when they told him they were going to the pool because he would run and jump right in. She often took him home after practices and ate dinner with his family.

In 1968, he competed in the first Special Olympics, which started after Burke suggested creating a citywide track meet for special education children. The Kennedy Foundation, chaired by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, donated another $25,000 to help fund the first games.

“He was the impetus,” Burke said. “He was the reason why we had the first Special Olympics.”

“He’s kind of an icon in our group. … The longest-serving athlete.”

He continued competing — known for his freestyle — until he had a stroke in his 50s that caused him to lose his ability in his left arm, making life more difficult for the  left-handed athlete, his oldest sister said.

He traveled around  the world for competitions as every year the Special Olympics  expanded. Last year’s world games involved more than 7,500 athletes from about 200 countries competing in 24 sports. There are now more than 5 million Special Olympics athletes worldwide.

Moose kept his smile and determination during each competition with a few mishaps along the way, his former coaches said.

Once in the early 1970s, he lost his swim trunks while doing a flip turn but didn’t stop until he was out of the pool. He had to finish the race, even if naked.

Pat Molloy has two medals she keeps in her car. She sometimes hangs them on her mirror and thinks of the good times with the two former athletes they belonged to, Kevin O’Brien and Pat McHugh.

When she goes to Moose’s wake, she wants to get a swimming medal to keep with the others, reuniting the playful athletes and sparking memories from their many trips. Molloy was one of Moose’s coaches, starting in the early 1990s, when he was in his 30s.

Moose played several sports including basketball, bowling, skiing and floor hockey. She introduced him to golf in 1993. His oldest sister jokingly said he became so good that he beat her and she decided not to play again.

But swimming remained his forte. Molloy said the first time she made a mistake while coaching was when she raced Moose.

“I don’t think I even hit the water and he was already halfway,” she said. “I thought I was a good swimmer. This kid, like, glided across the water.”

After the race, he never came up to her to gloat about the win. He got out of the pool and went on with his business.

Special Olympics was always more than the competition, though, she said. Everyone involved became close. She knew Moose watched “The Wizard of Oz” countless times, and that he knew all the words and the songs. He and some of the other athletes also loved Elvis, offering facts about his life or dancing to his music. A few picked Elvis as their costume for several Halloweens.

Most of the players had nicknames for each other, and usually would only respond to them, not their real names. Moose’s oldest sister said his nickname came from the family calling him Mickey, which morphed to Mickey Mouse, then Mickey Moose, then just Moose.

Another of his former coaches, Gerry Henaghan, who retired last year as the Park District’s special recreation manager, said she remembers how her hellos with Moose were always with a shared wink and he would click his cheeks. Even as he was getting older and his memory was fading, he sometimes connected with the wink.

The Cusack family was known for their special needs advocacy work, Henaghan said. Even after Moose’s parents died, his sisters, including McIntosh, Maureen McCormack, Colette  and Carole Cusack, continued to volunteer and two worked in special education. One of Moose’s nieces, Kate Grant,  works as a special recreation coordinator at McGuane Park.

“That whole family made an impact on the world,” Henaghan said. “I would like people to remember Michael by not only himself but his amazing family and how they set the standards for people with disabilities.”

The treatment of people with disabilities has changed considerably over Moose’s lifetime.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 after people, including the Cusacks, had been pushing for decades. Most schoolchildren now have connections with children who have special needs. Most people now know of the Special Olympics, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, back at Soldier Field.

Moose was part of the beginning of an era, McIntosh said. He helped pave the way.

“This is a social change,” she said. “There’s no going back.”

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