By Ray Compton
With the recent release of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty at movie theatres, there will probably be countless beings trying to live out their fantasies as Mitty does in James Thurber’s fascinating fictional short story originally scripted in 1939.
Danny Kaye played Mitty in the original movie production, bringing the Thurberman to the big screen in 1947. Now it is comedian Ben Stiller laying the groundwork for future mighty Mitty men in America and beyond.
But here in Indiana, we may not have to go to Hollywood and beyond to relive Mitty. We appear to have one right here in a housing division near you in Carmel.
Introducing John Cimasko.
If you are not aware of someone named Cimasko, then perhaps his more recognized Hoosier name will sound familiar. Cimasko is well-known by a moniker used when he goes on radio appearances and weekly sports talk show at 1070 the Fan.
Say hello to Jersey Johnny.
But perhaps you may not know about the other title attached to Cimasko when it comes to honoring hundreds of World War II veterans in Indiana and the other 49 states.
He is called ‘hero’ by the men and women who put their lives on the line almost 75 years ago. Cimasko is among those Joe Citizens who fondly and frequently fans the channel of support for these real life ‘heroes.’
“I am living a dream,” admitted the 58-year-old Cimasko. “I am able to do so many things that I truly enjoying doing.”
And that trail of good moments started in 1988 when the New Jersey native convinced his brother that they should drive to Indianapolis over Labor Day weekend to see his favorite NFL team – the Baltimore, er, Indiana, uh, Indianapolis Colts – play the Houston Oilers (another franchise who later had a new zip code) on Labor Day weekend. The Colts of Duane Bickett, Mike Prior and Albert Bentley may have lost the game (17-14), but their city won a fan.
Cimasko was ready to migrate to the Midwest.
“I had to find a real estate book before we left town,” he recalled. “I liked the city. I liked the price of houses, and there was a little magic to everything here.”
Now this story still needed a couple of missing chapters added. First, Cimasko had to convince his wife (Mary Anne, now employed at Carmel High School) to move to a place called Indiana. And next, there was this thing called a job. Before launching his fantasy, there was a need for employment.
“Mary Anne had never been here, but she looked at the real estate book. We came out and knocked around for a few days. Think about it. She moved 700 miles to become a Hoosier.”
Next up was drawing a paycheck. A friend led Cimasko to a potential job as a driver with Pepsi Cola. The only challenge for the original Jersey Boy would be the starting time. His drives started at 5 am.
“But I have loved every, every day at Pepsi,” said Cimasko who still drives for the soft drink company and regularly services special projects such as the Indiana State Fair and Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Shortly after the move to Indiana, Cimasko regularly called radio shows and added his comments about his beloved Colts, for whom he acquired fondness because of their Baltimore uniforms. “Their uniforms are tremendous. I still can see Raymond Berry in the blue and white.”
Cimasko peppered local radio hosts on WIBC (there were no sports talk shows) and WFBQ. Eventually in 1996, Kent Sterling of WIBC approached Cimasko and fellow Colts diehard Rob Weber about hosting a Colts post-game show. Jersey Johnny and Grover – not exactly Dan Patrick and Bob Costas – were born.
“We were kind of a post, post-game show,” remembered Cimasko. “But we were all over it.”
As were a bevy of Colts fans. The show became a staple for the growing Colts fan club, the Blue Crew. Both Jersey Johnny and Grover were unabashed in their support of the home team and seldom levied complaints at their heroes.
Cimasko admits the next era of the show (with sidekick Matt Hicks) is a little more objective in noting flaws on the playing field by the Colts.
“To maintain credibility, you have to be credible,” he said. “If things are not going well, you have to say something. We don’t sugarcoat things, but at the same time, we would rather have bad football than no football.”
In his own way, Cimasko has been a ringleader in turning the Colts into a fan favorite in basketball-crazy Indiana. Although he does not paint his face blue at Lucas Oil Stadium, he pounds the drum for continued support of Jim Irsay’s team.
“When I first got here, I thought Indiana or Purdue were playing at the Dome,” he noted. “Nobody wore blue. It seemed everyone was wearing NASCAR stuff at the games. But little by little, it has changed. The keys were having people such as Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Bill Polian and Tony Dungy around. Winning cures everything. This city should be very proud. We are a great NFL city.”
Meantime, Cimasko has found room for another passion in his Mitty-type life. He has led a charge to salute World War II veterans. He has helped organize several events for survivors of the USS Indianapolis, and he is now rounding up support for the Indy Honor Flight. The flights take veterans to the National World War II monument in Washington, D.C.
The Cimasko love for the campaign extends from his family. His father served in the Pacific theatre of World War II, while his brother is an Army veteran. His uncle Tony died in World War II.
“When I got involved with the USS Indianapolis 10 years ago, the guys reminded me of my dad and uncles,” said Cimasko. “We have no idea what these guys went through during their experiences in the war.”
The pied piper does know one scoreboard reading. The clock is ticking on the veterans. There are less than 40 survivors of the USS Indianapolis alive, and most World War II veterans are over 90 years old. Thus, the Hoosier Mitty has launched an aggressive movement to financially support the Indy Honor Flight program. Over 140 veterans have flown from Indiana to Washington, D.C. Two additional trips are scheduled for the spring 2014.
“The vets fly free, and every veteran gets a guardian,” said Cimasko, who takes his fundraising to all levels including his radio show on 1070 the Fan. “When these people get back to Indiana, they thank us for one of the greatest days in their lives. There are so many great causes, but these people are living history.”
And this Walter Mitty has enjoyed being a fan of the servicemen and women. Perhaps a quote from Will Rogers sums up his motivation the best. “We can’t all be heroes,” scripted Rogers. “Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.”
Ten Questions and Answers with the Pepsi Man, the Colts Fan, Jersey Johnny Cimasko:
What has been your biggest moment as a Colts fan?
It was being with my son [Jack] and daughter [Jill] when we beat the Patriots and went to the Super Bowl. I don’t think anything can top that game.
What has been your biggest disappointment as a Colts fan?
Not winning the second Super Bowl. I wish for Peyton’s sake we would have won that game [against New Orleans].
If you were to be buried in a Colts jersey, what number would you choose? No. 18, No. 12 or another number?
No. 88. That was John Mackey’s number. He was largely responsible for me becoming a Colts fan. [Mackey played tight end for the Baltimore Colts.]
Who are three unheralded Colts you would like to see on the Ring of Honor in Lucas Oil Stadium?
Duane Bickett, Albert Bentley and Eugene Daniel.
Do you have a pre-game ritual before home Colts games since you do not paint your face blue?
Not really. I join the media in the press box.
How did you feel the city did when it hosted the Super Bowl?
We did great. It was a circus like we thought it would be.
Who gave you the nickname Jersey Johnny?
I think it was either Dave Wilson or Jimmy “Mad Dog” Mattis.
How do you compare football to war?
You can’t. Sports are sports. War is real life.
What are your favorite movies about the military?
Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day.
If you could interview one celebrity on your radio show, who would you interview?