Shouts of “Happy Birthday, Marine!” and “Semper Fi!” filled the air last
Saturday as thousands of Marines converged at Cookie’s Tavern on 10th & Oregon
Avenue to celebrate the 232nd birthday of the United States Marine Corps. And
since the nativity of the Corps began in a colonial Philadelphia bar at The Tun
Tavern on Nov. 10, 1775, it is so very fitting to have this remarkable annual
event take place in a South Philadelphia bar.
Synonymous with the event is the late James R. “Daddy Wags” Wagner, requiescat
in pace 2002. His daughter Marion Wagner’s face lights up as bright as a
moonbeam at the mention of her legendary father’s name. “This is all word of
mouth,” she informs me as she waves her arms east and west. “First it was two,
then 10, then 100, then 1000! It just grew, maybe 2000 today.” What would your
father impart upon us if he were still in the physical world? I ask. “Freedom is
not free. He always said and meant those words. My father wanted every American
to know that.”
The first Marine Birthday was celebrated in 1923 at Fort Mifflin, but I’m
curious about the origin of the teeming sea of Red and Gold on Oregon Avenue.
Charlie Simpson, Wagner’s cousin, was there from the very beginning. “This bar,
Cookie’s Tavern, originally belonged to Wag’s uncle, Bill ‘Cookie’ Cook. We were
a few years out of the Marine Corps. I walked into Cookie’s on Nov. 10, 1969 and
I saw Wags there all by himself, having a beer. He said, ‘Let’s drink a beer to
the Marines’ birthday. We should do this again the next year but tell everyone
we know.’ So it went from two to 10 to what you see today; that’s how it started
and then grew.” In 1977, Wager bought the bar but kept the name in honor of his
uncle and officially declared the birthday party as an annual event.
Deputy Inspector Tony Boyle and retired-from-South Detective Joe O’Hara, along
with attorney Mike Wallace, were friends with Daddy Wags for more than 30 years.
“It was 1978. I was patrolling the area in the 402 wagon. I knew something was
going on, on Alder Street,” Inspector Boyle relates. “So I stopped. There were
no complaints or anything. Wags came out of the bar with a first anniversary
t-shirt and a mug and gave it to me. I still have the t-shirt.” O’Hara comes up
with a great idea: “Have the shirt framed and hang it in a place of honor.”
Wallace opens up about the fraternal familiarity he’s experienced. “Wags was my
brother, always will be my brother. He always said, ‘If you want to be a bear,
be a grizzly.’” In the crowd I saw Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient Jon R.
Cavaiani. “I flew in from Columbia, Cal., an old gold-mining town, population
55,000.” He wore the medal proudly around his neck and was surrounded by Marines
who wanted a snapshot with him. To me, that medal is worth more than all the
gold in those old mines.
The Army is also represented among his close friends. Richie Strohm, of Richard
T. Strohm and Associates, goes way back. “In 1968, Wags wanted his Airborne
Wings. He went to Fort Benning, Ga. I was his instructor. He passed the test.
We’ve been friends ever since.” Retired Marine Captain Tom “Pittzy” Pitts
instantly bonded with Wagner in 1997. “I told him about the Toys for Tots
program and he dove right in. We found out he died 10 minutes before the Toys
for Tots run that Saturday morning Nov. 5, 2002. I immediately got the
microphone and re-named the race The Annual Daddy Wags Toys for Tots Run.”
After Wagner’s passing, his buddies spontaneously formed “Wag’s Platoon”.
Southern Hall of Fame athlete Kenny Adams disclosed that no formal contract with
the city was ever had for the party. “The police re-routed traffic, but that was
about it. We wanted to get and keep the City involved. The Platoon got together
at Marion’s to make sure the party stayed alive. I went to John Dougherty of
Local 98 and told him of our needs. Now Doc always gives toys to the Toys for
Tots program there and was very supportive. I, along with Mary-Rita
D’Alessandro, became liaisons with the city. We got the stage, sound system,
port-a-potties and trash pick-up permits.”
Thirty years later, the celebration has taken a life of its own, and is going
strong. Around the world Marines celebrate their day, but only in Philadelphia
will you find the spirit of the Tun Tavern in Cookie’s Tavern thriving with
esprit de corps. Oorah!