The basketball team at Notre Dame High School in St. Louis ran through its drills on the high-gloss court. Music — the loud stuff that teens like but older adults such as Charles Tabor don’t appreciate — boomed, pumping adrenaline for layups and 3-point attempts.
Tabor, 77, sat on the first row of the gymnasium bleachers, waiting for the home team to take on its opponent. He has been a regular at this courtside seat since 1998. With the help of his retractable white cane, Tabor can make his way from the curb, where he is dropped off by a Call-A-Ride van, into the school. But as soon as Tabor is spotted, at least one student from this Catholic all-girls school runs out to say hello and escorts him inside.
Tabor first showed up at the small south St. Louis County school around this time 19 years ago, after hearing on the radio about a Christmas program at Notre Dame. He doesn’t recall much about the holiday performance, but he does remember former athletic director Thom Champion greeting him and asking his name.
“I’m Charles Tabor,” he said.
“Welcome to Notre Dame, Charles,” Champion said.
“When he said that, I knew where I wanted to be,” Tabor said.
A warm voice. A kind word. That was all Tabor needed to become the most loyal fan, the one everyone knows. The elderly man in the Notre Dame cap and matching letter jacket who pulls out a kazoo to engage a quiet crowd.
“We’re something in his life, and that’s important to him, and to us,” said Mark Bayens, athletic director since 2011. “This feels like family to him.”
If there is an activity at Notre Dame, Tabor is there. Softball and basketball games. Plays. Christmas and spring concerts. The Fall Festival.
“I believe in being active. If I wasn’t active, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.” A nod to mortality. An opportunity to tout his good health.
Last year, Notre Dame added to the list of items for its annual auction the naming rights for the gymnasium. Dr. James and Beth Lundy, parents of a current Notre Dame student and a recent graduate, were the top bidders. They named the gym after Tabor.
“When he starts to cheer, it’s so sweet and genuine,” said Beth Lundy, of O’Fallon, Ill. “There’s no pretension to it. It’s not about attention. He’s just excited to be there. You can just tell. I like to honor that kind of thing.”
The Lundys, top bidders again this year, chose to keep Tabor’s name on the gym.
Below the scoreboard hangs a sign:
“The Charles Tabor Gymnasium
In honor of Notre Dame High School’s #1 Fan”
• • •
Tabor has been blind since he was 3, following unsuccessful cataract surgeries.
“Am I bitter about it?” Tabor said without being asked. Not at all. Medical technology in the 1940s was not what it is today, he said.
“What they couldn’t do for me they are able to do today,” Tabor said. “Those who have it rough are those who lose their sight when they are older.”
For Tabor, it’s more about what he has than what might have been.
He lives alone in a small apartment across from a park and next to a grocery store. The senior living high-rise on sits on the city’s busiest bus line. At Tower Grove Manor, he drinks his coffee black, steers clear of salt and looks forward to Mondays — better known as biscuits and gravy day at the retirement center. He plays bingo on Wednesday nights and attends Mass on Sunday.
He wasn’t raised Catholic, growing up in Church of Christ and Baptist congregations. But Mass is a social event. A priest comes in so residents don’t have to go out. His relationship with Notre Dame High School may have held some sway.
On the front door of his apartment, Tabor has mounted his “6th Man Award,” a plaque he received from the Notre Dame basketball program in 2012 during the annual sports banquet.
“We wanted to recognize him for all the times he has come to support us,” Bayens said. “We came up with a special award.”
Tabor attended Missouri School for the Blind, getting as far as eighth grade. At age 7, a scalp infection kept him out of class for a year “and I never caught up.” But he eventually earned a GED.
In 1970, when his dad and stepmom retired and headed to Florida, Tabor moved with them.
“I had no other choice in where to live,” said Tabor, who said homes for young disabled people were all but nonexistent at that time.
In 1998, he moved back to St. Louis, after the deaths of his parents. He never really warmed up to Florida. The Midwest was more to his liking, in temperature and temperament. His sister and her family still live in Florida.
“My stepmom used to ask me: ‘What are you going to do when I die?’ I told her I was going to keep going like I always have.”
He began looking for ways to connect with the city that he grew up in. That’s when he heard the public service announcement about a holiday program at Notre Dame.
His income comes from the state’s Missouri Blind Pension program and Social Security. He reads books on American history and listens to college football and St. Louis Cardinals games. With the help of a talented announcer, Tabor says, he can see the action on the field, from a play action pass to a second base steal.
Music is transcending. It takes him back, and holds him in the moment.
“Music, you can picture it in your mind,” Tabor said. Although his teen years corresponded with the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, he never veered far from big band and Sinatra. His favorite song is “My Way.”
During an interview at his apartment, Tabor popped a CD into a portable player. An instrumental version of the song by Dutch conductor Andre Rieu and his orchestra filled the tiny dining room.
For five minutes, Tabor said nothing, listening intently and moving his fingers over the braille dots on his bingo card. The lyrics of the song he has listened to hundreds of times ran through his head.
“Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.”
Silence filled the air several seconds after the song ended. He clicked the off button.
“It symbolizes the life you might have lived,” Tabor finally said. “I’ve been through good times and other moments. It’s something you identify with.”
• • •
Tabor is often among a small crowd at Notre Dame sporting events. Afternoon softball games are played when most parents are at work. That’s why it’s important that Tabor be there to show support, he said.
From his cheers of “Let’s Go Rebels!” to leading the crowd in a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Tabor makes his presence known. He says he even gives an occasional verbal jab to those who make questionable calls.
“Where is your eyesight, ref?” Tabor chuckles when he tells that story — possibly more of a tall tale.
Tabor arrives at basketball games early, cheering on the freshman squad and their growing pains, the scrappy JV battle and the prime-time varsity faceoff. The sounds of sneakers on hardwood. The swish of the ball in the net. The shouts of coaches. The cheers from parents. They all help Tabor gauge the action of the game. Still, he occasionally asks someone sitting nearby the score.
For the students at Notre Dame, Tabor enhances the school experience.
“No other school has a Charles,” said junior Amelia Shaw, 17. “He can’t see the games but he knows what is going on. He feels it. It’s so cool and unique. Charles is our guy.”
Sophomore Kelly Oge, 15, first saw Tabor last year while walking through the gym to field hockey practice. A basketball game was going on. Tabor, as usual, was cheering and playing his kazoo.
“I was so touched by him and his spirit that I actually started crying,” Kelly said. “He just made my heart full of happiness.”
School president Meghan Bohac said Tabor fits nicely into the mission of Notre Dame: educating young women to become confident, compassionate Christian leaders.
“He embodies that for our girls,” Bohac said.
Conversations with Tabor are more like reflections, not surprising for someone his age. He often borrows from his favorite tune, stressing he has no regrets.
But he does have a wish.
In 1949, at 9, Tabor began listening to University of Notre Dame football games on the radio. It would be the year the Fighting Irish became national champions for the third time in four years. The team became his team.
Sitting among the more than 75,000 fans in South Bend, Ind., would be incredible, he said.
“I don’t know if it will ever happen. Getting tickets is probably impossible.”
In the meantime, he’s got his local Notre Dame, a school of 230 students overlooking the Mississippi River.
A school that embraced him two decades ago and never let go.