In the end, Irsay rests quietly

Controversial Colts owner among notables in Indianapolis' Crown Hill Cemetery Robert Irsay

January 13, 2007|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun Reporter

INDIANAPOLIS -- The man Baltimore still loves to hate is buried on the side of the highest hill in Indianapolis -- a rolling green slope that once inspired poetry -- beneath a 6-foot, sculpted gray granite monument that bears a large horseshoe logo and his last name in capital letters: IRSAY.

While closure has eluded many Baltimore fans who still hold a grudge against the man who spirited the Colts away to Indianapolis, it came for Robert Irsay on Jan. 14, 1997, at the age of 73, two years after he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak in more than a whisper.

After some carefully worded eulogies for a man who offended many in life, including some in his own family, he was buried on the side of the hill from which Crown Hill Cemetery -- the nation's third-largest non-government cemetery -- takes its name.

Irsay's is not one of the most visited gravesites, but it is included on some of the official tours offered at the 555-acre cemetery, which is also the final resting place of President Benjamin Harrison, bank robber John Dillinger and beloved Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, who once penned a poem, "Crown Hill," inspired while he was sitting atop the hill on which he was later buried:

Leave him here in the fresh greening grasses and trees

And the symbols of love, and the solace of these

The saintly white lilies and blossoms he keeps

In endless caress as he breathlessly sleeps.

Crown Hill -- once a tree farm, and a popular spot for families to picnic -- already was a cemetery by then, having been established in 1863 when, because of Civil War fatalities, Indianapolis outgrew its first one, according to a history of the cemetery.

Today, the cemetery contains 25 miles of paved road, receives about 25,000 visitors a year and is home to more than 190,000 gravesites and about 30 white-tailed deer that roam freely.

Riley, who according to the history was the first writer to sell more than a million dollars worth of poetry, died in 1916. After 18 months in a mausoleum, he was buried on the then-vacant hill, which from that point on served as a burial site for some of the city's most prominent citizens.

The hill's name has changed over the years, depending on who owned it. It also has been known as Dorsey's Knob, Mount McCormick, Williams Hill, Sand Hill and Strawberry Hill, because of the bushes that grew at its summit. It rises steeply, to a height of 860 feet, and offers a sweeping view of the Indianapolis skyline, visible over the limbs of a giant osage orange at its foot.

Irsay's plot, while located lower down the hill, is a large one. Irsay is the only member of his family buried there. The multi-grave plot is owned by his widow, Nancy, but Marty Davis, public relations coordinator for Crown Hill Funeral Home and Cemetery, said she did not know if she or any of Irsay's children, including current Colts owner Jim Irsay, plans to be buried there.

Robert Irsay was not as reviled in Indianapolis as he was in Baltimore.

Here, the image, and perhaps the man, softened. "A good, generous corporate citizen," former Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut III once called him.

Irsay's relationship with Baltimore was far more tempestuous. He had a reputation as a shrewd businessman, an impetuous and meddlesome team owner prone to drunken fits of rage. He would openly voice his dissatisfaction with players, coaches and Memorial Stadium, the latter of which led him to consider moving the team elsewhere, though he denied it up to the end.

"I have no intentions of moving the ... team," he said in January 1984, two months before Mayflower moving vans pulled into Baltimore in the dead of night and loaded up the team's belongings for Indianapolis, which was offering a new, domed stadium, subsidized loans, guaranteed revenue and more.

Born in Chicago to Jewish-Hungarian parents who changed their names from Israel to Irsay when he was young, Irsay made a fortune in the heating and air conditioning business he learned from his father.

He later became estranged from his parents and brother, who accused him of denying his Jewish roots, pretending his upbringing was impoverished and making off with family funds. He later would be accused of embellishing his past -- from his college education to his combat record.

In a 1986 interview with Sports Illustrated, his mother called him "a devil on earth."

Irsay divorced his wife, Harriet, in 1985, shortly after leaving Baltimore, and remarried in 1989.

By the mid-1990s, the Colts, after a decade as an average NFL team, had come within a game of the Super Bowl, and his son, Jim, had gradually taken over the reins.

At Irsay's funeral, carnations dyed blue and white were arranged in a horseshoe shape. He was remembered as an astute, tough and no-nonsense man who had some rough edges.

In Baltimore, the recollections weren't quite as kind.

"He had a very strange complex, an inferiority complex ... If you had a boat, he had to have a bigger boat. If you had a car, he had to have a bigger car," former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer said upon Irsay's death.

The monument at his grave, which bears the Colts' logo on both sides, is about the same size as that of one of the cemetery's most famous residents, Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States.

The cemetery includes Irsay on its list of "notables," but it is Dillinger's grave that draws the most interest, said Todd D. Dashley, executive vice president of the funeral home and cemetery.

Though Davis said a teddy bear can sometimes be seen at Irsay's monument, it was adorned this week with a Christmas wreath and nothing else.

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

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