The late Charlie Dolan (second left) is with legendary basketball icon Bill Raftery (far left), the late Fran Raftery, Bill’s brother, and sportswriter Jim Hague in this picture from 2017. Photo courtesy of Jim Hague

It was an epic love story that spanned almost seven decades, a marriage that lasted 65 years.

It was a union that began innocently at a school dance at the now-defunct St. Cecilia’s High School in Kearny, when a shy sophomore named Jo-Ann Foster was introduced to star athlete Charlie Dolan, a senior at the school and a three-sport standout (soccer, basketball and baseball) who was well on his way to becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer in basketball.

“I knew who he was, but to be honest, I didn’t think he knew who I was,” said the former Jo-Ann Foster, who became Jo-Ann Dolan later after marrying Charlie. “It was at a CYO dance at the school and he had a friend who came up to me and said, ‘Charlie Dolan wants to ask you out.’ I said, ‘Well, if Charlie Dolan wants to ask me out, he should do it himself.’ I was just so nervous.”

Charlie eventually got up the nerve to ask out the shy and beautiful Jo-Ann. They went to the old Warner Theater together and saw “It’s A Woman’s World,” starring Fernando Llamas and Arlene Dahl, who ironically became real-life husband and wife. The romantic that he was, Charlie bought Jo-Ann a gift.

“It was a pineapple Tootsie Roll lollypop,” Jo-Ann Dolan recalled with a laugh.

But soon after the final movie credits rolled on, Jo-Ann knew she had herself a partner for life. When Dolan took off for St. Michael’s College in Vermont to play basketball, he wrote a letter to his love every single day. And still a student at St. Cecila’s, Jo-Ann returned every single letter to keep the long distance relationship from fading fast.

That relationship didn’t fade one moment over the past 65 years, until last week when Charlie Dolan died after a long battle with a series of illnesses, in particular Parkinson’s disease. He was a few weeks shy of his 86th birthday.

While Dolan was not readily known for his romantic side — he claimed that Jo-Ann was the only love of his life — he was well known for his athletic prowess. He played soccer and fared well, but was much better known for his proficiency in basketball and baseball.

In baseball, Dolan was a standout pitcher for the Kearny Build Better Boys Baseball league team that won back-to-back championships in 1955 and 1956. Dolan pitched the championship game wearing a cast on his left arm after breaking a wrist that he made sure he pitched with.

In basketball, Dolan tallied 1,265 points in just three years of varsity play – freshmen were not permitted to play varsity back then. He averaged more than 30 points per game his senior year of 1955. Dolan’s career scoring record at St. Cecilia’s stood for seven years before Kearny’s most famous basketball personality shattered it.

Bill Raftery, whose point total of 2,430 points at St. Cecilia’s remains No. 2 in the all-time Hudson County scoring list, vividly recalls Dolan’s kindness when Raftery was growing up in Kearny, as a key to his development as a player that led to a career at LaSalle University in Philadelphia and led to his eventual career as the head coach at Seton Hall and to a three-decade career as a beloved sportscaster, most notably with CBS Sports and the national coverage of the popular NCAA Tournament and Final Four.

“He was one of the older guys that I looked up to,” Raftery recalled. “The older guys pretty much held the court, but Charlie let us play with them if they needed an extra guy. The competition was always good and playing with the older guys, guys four, five or six years older, always helped. And Charlie always offered good constructive criticism. He would never interfere with my development. He was always so helpful. I think about him a lot.”

Raftery paid Dolan a visit whenever he had the opportunity to do so, especially after Dolan’s health went into decline.

“He had this natural athletic ability,” Raftery said. “But it was never about him. His generosity just showed the goodness of the guy. He had such a good heart. I never once saw him raise his voice to anyone. He always seemed to be so happy and that stuck with me over the years.”

Another legendary basketball figure also recalled his relationship with Dolan.

“He was the godfather of Kearny basketball,” said Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Hurley Sr., who amassed an astounding 1,100 victories and a record 28 NJSIAA state championships over his brilliant coaching career at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City. “When it came to caring about the kids of Kearny, he was always there. He loved the game of basketball so totally. In a town that bleeds soccer, Charlie just loved basketball. He was so passionate about it. When he called and asked me for something, it was so extremely difficult to say ‘no.’ It’s like saying no to Santa Claus. And he was so generous to everyone, both the boys and the girls. He wanted basketball to thrive in Kearny. He was a great man. Not many schools have people like Charlie Dolan.”

In fact, Dolan became totally involved with Kearny High programs.

“He always wanted what was best for the kids,” legendary Kearny soccer Hall of Fame coach and athletic director John Millar said. “He always wanted what was best for the kids. He asked how he could help kids get into college. He would weave his magic and get the kid into school. He cared so much about the kids. You don’t find guys like that anymore.”

Bill Mullins, the long-time boys’ basketball coach and boys’ volleyball coach at Kearny, has known the Dolan family since childhood.

“Mr. Dolan was so important to our program,” Mullins said. “He was always a gentleman, just one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. He never said a bad word about anyone. He was so positive with everyone, especially the kids. He was unbelievable.”

Dolan would oversee the off-season open gym sessions that the kids would participate in and could not have any influence from the Kearny coaches, due to NJSIAA regulations.

Dolan even went into his own pocket to start the Kearny AAU basketball program, a team that he coached in the summer months. When a 3-on-3 national tournament took place in Florida about a decade ago, Dolan funded the entire trip for the participants.

“He would take kids to games and even played basketball with us at times,” Mullins said. “He would take the time to teach kids the right way to shoot the ball. He really meant everything to us. I will always be grateful to him. I learned a lot from him. He’s just a great man, a gentleman who lived a great life. I was truly blessed to have him coaching with us. The kids of Kearny were lucky and blessed. It’s a loss for all of us.”

Former Kearny boys’ head coach Bob McDonnell also developed a great relationship with Dolan.

“He knew the history of all the sports teams,” McDonnell said. “He was a font of information, basketball, baseball, soccer, you name it. And he was always there offering congratulations. He was the first one to call me when I got the job to congratulate me. He became a mentor to me and we became really good friends. The kids all responded to him. He was a very positive influence on them. He tried to do whatever he could to help. My lasting memory of Charlie will be that he was the most unselfish person I’ve ever met in my life.”

Dolan was also supportive of the girls’ basketball program.

“He was one of the most supportive people I know,” said long-time Kearny girls’ basketball head coach Jody Hill. “It was a no-brainer to have him around. He was at every home game and wanted to be involved with us as much as possible.”

Added Hill, “His dedication to the kids was an inspiration to me. He was always so positive and uplifting. He was also so very generous. He always had great knowledge of the game that he passed on to the kids. He would take a kid to the side and work on their shots, their games. He would come and offer his advice. And who could say no to Charlie Dolan? He really was a naturally born teacher who taught the kids all that he knew.”

Tom Fraser, a long-time guidance counselor at Kearny’s Lincoln School, became close friends with Dolan over the years, after having taught all three of Dolan’s children (son Danny and daughters Mary Jo and Bernadette).

“He was the best friend anyone could ask for,” Fraser said. “He was smart with a good sense of humor. He was also the toughest guy I knew. I was fortunate to call him my friend.”

Dolan volunteered his time to several organizations, like the Kearny Little League, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the old West Hudson Hospital and a particular obsession to the Salvation Army that he passed on to friend Fraser and wife Jo-Ann.

In 2009, Dolan gained induction into the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame with the prestigious Marty Seglio Memorial Community Service Award.

Eight years ago, Dolan was slowed somewhat by his illness that made him wheelchair bound, but personal caregiver Jo-Ann made sure he was a presence at all the games. His health and the pandemic forced him to the sidelines.

Before he died, he took time with Jo-Ann to write his own obituary that appeared on the Armitage-Wiggins Funeral Home website and in this newspaper.

“It will be tough to find another one like Charlie,” Raftery said. “He helped so many kids including me.”

“I know he was proud of what he did,” Jo-Ann Dolan said. “He put his heart and soul into everything and I was right there behind him.”

And it all began so innocently at a dance 68 years ago this month.

Dolan leaves his wife, three children and eight grandchildren, not to mention the hundreds of others he mentored and coached. He will be so sorely missed.

Editors Note: Retired Observer Sports Writer Jim Hague came out of retirement to write this tribute for his friend and neighbor of the last 25 years.

Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Special to The Observer