Caddy to the Kennedys: Vages Recalls a Charmed Childhood

HYANNISPORT – It’s doubtful his parents knew about it, but he had to undergo the initiation just the same.

After all, any local Barnstable kid in the late 1930s and early 1940s who wanted to be a caddy at the prestigious Hyannisport Club would do just about anything to get the job. According to Centerville’s Tom Vages, who grew up in West Hyannisport and started caddying at the club “at about age 9 or 10,” the neighborhood neophyte bag and club carriers had to strip down to their boxers and chase after their clothes if they wanted the job and, well, if they didn’t feel like walking home half-naked.

“They’d put our clothes on the running boards of the car and we had to run down Irving Avenue after them to get them back,” Vages recalled with a laugh. “But it was all in good fun.”

The year of that initiation was 1941 and the United States had yet to be attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.

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Tom Vages reminisced last week about his days as a caddy for Joe and Rose Kennedy at Hyannisport & Oyster Harbors in the 1940’s.
Sean Walsh Photo

Needless to say, Vages – who later on became one of Barnstable High’s top football players and golfers – got the job. And it was his trademark smile and affable good nature that may have made that job even more palatable when he was assigned to caddy for Rose Kennedy, matriarch of the Kennedy Family, who lived just down the street.

Throughout World War II up until high school when he stopped caddying and started working at Joe Gregory’s Mobil Station in Sherman Square (Hyannis), Vages traipsed after Mrs. Kennedy’s golf balls and toted her golf bag in the spring and fall seasons. The local boys, he explained, weren’t allowed to caddy at Hyannisport in the summer months because the club had a caddy camp where boys from abroad would come and learn the trade.

“She used to tip me 25 cents or 50 cents or 75 cents on a good day,” Vages recalled, but added, the “real money” was elsewhere.

Vages said one of the perks, though, of caddying for Mrs. Kennedy was that the boys were allowed “once in a while” to go down to the Kennedy compound on Marchant Avenue and go into a movie theatre in the basement to watch the latest films. He says he never saw the Kennedy boys around Hyannisport but does remember seeing “Jack Kennedy” (President John F. Kennedy) on “Main Street, Hyannis” one day listening to a sidewalk performer who he likened to an organ grinder with a small monkey on his shoulder.

“He (Kennedy) wanted to give the man a dollar but didn’t have any money so he went into the drug store and they gave him a dollar,” Vages recalls. “He must have put it on the family credit.”

As the War raged on and Vages grew older, so, too, did his resourcefulness. His “Kennedy Family” caddying assignment, in otherwords, graduated to a new level and he got a little help from his mother’s employer.

For 65 years, Vages’ mother Mary Vages was the cook and housemaid for Dr. Herbert Kalmus at his estate (now the Fernbrook Inn) on Main Street in Centerville. Over the course of nearly seven decades, Mrs. Vages made numerous connections working for Dr. Kalmus, one of those connections being with Kennedy family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. It was when “Joe Kennedy” was  U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom that she first met him and helped her son graduate to a better-paying “caddying” position.

“I used to hitchhike on Craigville Beach Road up to Oyster Harbors,” Vages recalled. “And if I could make my own way to the golf course then I would caddy for Joe.”

Vages caddied more for Mr. Kennedy, he said, than he did for his wife Rose, and the two quickly formed a close bond. It’s not difficult to see why.

“He would open up his bag when we were done and give me a $5 bill,” Vages recalled. “And then he would give me a ride home.”

Vages grew up an only-child of Mary and Tom Vages Sr. at the corner of the intersection of Strawberry Hill Road and Old Craigville Road. Getting a ride home was a pretty big deal in those days, but getting a ride home from a former US Ambassador was something altogether different.

“He was just a really, really good guy,” Vages said, in fond rememberance. “He and Dr. Kalmus were very good friends.”

Kalmus, one of the inventors of film Technicolor and the namesake of Kalmus Beach in Hyannis, was equally good to Vages. Upon graduation from Barnstable High School in 1951, Kalmus said he would pay the young student-athlete’s “full tuition” to any college he could gain admittance to.

“My parents were natives of Cape Verde,” Vages said. “They could barely read and write and spoke broken English, but they worked very, very hard. Dr. Kalmus picked up the full tab for me to go to school.”

The Kennedys

The Kennedys
Photo Courtesy of the Sturgis East Charter School

As it turned out, Vages was accepted at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, which in 1951 was a two-year school. He studied aircraft mechanics and earned his mechanics’ certificate and then joined the United States Air Force in 1953. He was sent to Korea where he met and befriended another famous Massachusetts man – Boston Red Sox hall of famer Ted Williams. Williams was a combat pilot for the United States Marine Corps in both World War II and the Korean War.

After the war, Vages went on to 38-year career with Northeast and then Delta Airlines and ran one of the maintenance crews at Logan International Airport in Boston. He’s been married to his wife Dona Maria for 53 years and the couple raised their family of four children in Marshfield. The Vages now have 10 grandchildren and one great-grandson.

At 82 years young, Tom Vages Jr. seems as spry and full of life as he might have been running down Irving Avenue 75-aught autumns ago, chasing after his clothes and laughing all the way. The memories don’t escape him for one moment, even in the twilight of a charmed life.

“Joe Kennedy liked me,” Vages said. “He was truly a good man. I owe a lot to his influence.”

Vages is somewhat of a scratch golfer these days. He was crowned the Super Senior Club Champion this year at the Olde Barnstable Fairgrounds and he’s the 1st and 5th club champion at Dennis Pines. When asked if he had any humorous memories of his days caddying for the Kennedys, though, he had to think about it for a minute but then cast a sheepish grin when the memory came to him. He recalled that in high school – while playing football for Barnstable High Hall of Famer Leo Shields –he snuck onto the 9th tee at Hyannisport with football chums Johnny O’Neil and Kenny Hassett. When they got to the tee box, they looked below to see Mrs. Kennedy (Rose) digging around in the bushes for her ball, sans caddy. Mrs. Kennedy looked up and saw Vages and his buddies and “she waved us through. C’mon boys, she yelled up, play through, play through.”

“I got really nervous because she was right in our path and pretty close,” Vages recalls. “I was sweating bullets. One of the guys hit a ball right at her and I froze stiff. It went right between her legs and she never even noticed. Boy, was I relieved.”

By Sean Walsh/CCBM Sports Editor

Follow him on Twitter @coachwalshccbm or email him at [email protected]

1950 Barnstable High Football

The late W. Leo Shields (left) poses with his starting offense in the fall of 1950. Pictured third from right, kneeling, is Tom Vages, former caddy to the Kennedys.
Photo Courtesy of the BHS Athletic Hall of Fame, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dr. Kalmus was an American scientist and engineer who played a key role in developing color motion picture film. Kalmus was the co-founder and president of the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation. He played a vital role to the future success of Hyannis' Tom Vages. ©1999-2003 The American WideScreen Museum Photographic and printing process illustrations ©1999-2003 AWSM - All Rights Reserved

Dr. Kalmus was an American scientist and engineer who played a key role in developing color motion picture film. Kalmus was the co-founder and president of the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation. He played a vital role to the future success of Hyannis’ Tom Vages.
©1999-2003 The American WideScreen Museum
Photographic and printing process illustrations ©1999-2003 AWSM – All Rights Reserved