By John Rice
When William "BJ" Jahoda came to Springfield in 1997 to address a conference on combatting legalized gambling, his travel companion was Pastor Tom Grey. Grey had met Jahoda, when he testified from behind a screen to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in 1995. Grey was a longtime opponent of state-sanctioned gambling. He thought, "There's got to be truth if a mob guy and a minister see eye-to-eye."
Jahoda proposed a get-together. They met on March 4, 1996 at the University of Maryland. Students had been alerted that a man named "Bobby J." was going to discuss gambling and that no photographs were permitted. Bobby J. warned the students about the dangers of gambling. He told them how "gambling could turn a million dollars into two pizzas and a six-pack."
Grey was captivated by Jahoda. They became friends and comrades in a common cause. For six years, they traveled coast-to-coast, speaking at college campuses. "60 Minutes" spotlighted their efforts.
When they journeyed to Springfield, Grey called his longtime friend Sister Pauletta Overbeck, who had provided accommodations in the past. She agreed to put them up in the convent. Jahoda needed to keep a low profile after his cooperation with federal authorities on mob activities.
Sister Pauletta grew up in the tiny hamlet of Dietrich, Illinois, where her parents ran a boarding house. Among their guests were Chicago mobsters who came down to vacation. She became a foe of organized crime early in life.
After she became a Dominican nun, an order that has opposed gambling since the 1500s, she joined an organization called Illinois Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems (ILCAAAP). It had been established in 1898 as the Anti-Saloon League. In 1992, they added gambling as an "area of prevention." Sister Pauletta became secretary of this Springfield-based organization. She worked with Executive Director Anita Bedell for 20 years.
Bedell remembers the day Grey brought "Sonny" to Springfield to speak to the conference and students at a Lutheran high school. She recalled Jahoda blasting gambling boats as "pirate ships." Bedell said Jahoda was an engaging speaker with a colorful background.
Grey would agree. "You could have the IQ of a canned ham," Jahoda would say, "And play a slot machine." He had a good sense of humor and charm to spare. Sister Pauletta looked "ageless" in her 80s, Grey recalled. He described her as a "saintly person" and said she and "Sonny" charmed each other.
Jahoda continued his anti-gambling crusade for the rest of his life. When he died of liver disease, on May 7, 2004, at the age of 61, he was working at a mission in Omaha, while heading a group he had formed, Americans Against Gambling.
Grey attended Jahoda's wake at Zimmerman-Ehringer Funeral Home in Forest Park. The mourners were an odd mix of old friends from his unsavory days and the federal agents, prosecutors and judges who had grown to admire him. If he were alive today, Jahoda would have opposed video gaming in Forest Park. He would have celebrated the successful effort of a citizens group to defeat video gambling at the polls.
Bedell calls video gaming the "crack" of gambling. It is not "entertainment" but an adrenaline rush that affects the brain like narcotics. She said that women are especially vulnerable to gambling addiction. That is why the video gaming parlors that are springing up bear the names of women.
One of the special women in Jahoda's life was Sister Pauletta, who died at the age of 103, on Oct. 13, 2018. After he left the convent following the Springfield visit, Jahoda wrote her a heartfelt letter and included a picture of bluebirds, "From the two blue birds, Tom and BJ."
Bluebirds are a symbol of happiness and that is what "Sonny" had finally found.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com