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The Chief

Art Rooney Sr. - A decade after his death still, Pittsburgh's No. 1 Citizen

Sunday, August 30, 1998

By Ron Cook, Post-Gazette Sports Columnist

It's a Saturday morning, any Saturday morning, maybe about 10 o'clock. Art Rooney Jr. still is in bed, feeling guilty, thinking about . . .

You're not going to believe this.

Art Rooney Sr. - The Chief (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette 1982)

"I justify it by telling myself The Chief would sleep in occasionally," Rooney Jr. said.

"I know, it's crazy. I'm 62 going on 63 and I still worry about what my father would think. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about him. 'What would he say? What would he think? Would he approve of what I'm doing?' I don't think about my mother like that, and she was prettier and wittier than he was. But that's the influence he had on us."

On Pittsburgh, really.

When Art Rooney Sr. died 10 years ago last week at 87, then County Commissioner Tom Foerster said, "Normally, you introduce the mayor of any city as that city's No. 1 citizen. But everyone knew Mr. Rooney was our No. 1 citizen. I'm fully convinced he did more for this city than R.K. Mellon did for the business community and David Lawrence and any of the mayors who followed him, including Richard Caliguiri, did politically."

Nothing has happened since to change the perception.

If anything, Rooney is remembered more fondly. He represented a kinder, gentler Pittsburgh, certainly a more innocent time in the professional sports world. He came long before before talk of Plan B, PNC Park, personal seat licenses, $17.6 billion television contracts, $25 million contracts for players and $2 million salaries for coaches.

"I don't think he'd be too thrilled about what's going on today," said Dan Rooney, who has run the Steelers since his father's death. "I can remember him telling me, 'You'll rue the day you take all that money from the networks. It won't be our game as much anymore. It'll be their game.' "

"He even told us late in his life that it would be OK if we ever decided to sell the team," Rooney Jr. said. "He reminded us we weren't big-money people . . .

"This isn't well-known, but toward the end of his life, one of his great desires was to own a minor-league baseball team. He thought it would be neat to be involved with young, hungry kids on their way up."

That's one of the few wishes Rooney Sr. failed to realize.

He did it all in his life, from his days as a rough, tough -- yes, even brawling -- rogue in the 1920s to his final years as a kind, saintly, beloved figure. He loved his family, was loyal to his Catholic faith and cherished his friends. He won big at the race track and even bigger with the Steelers, at least in the glorious 1970s. He liked politics -- his family says he probably rolled in his grave when his grandson, Art II, turned down a chance to be a U.S. senator in 1991 -- and loved his cigars. He even had a fondness for newspaper people.

"He's the voice of the man in the street," the late Cardinal John J. Wright once said of Rooney, who went to his grave considering that one of his greatest compliments.

There are tributes to Rooney everywhere. There's the Rooney Statue, built with donations of more than $371,000 raised in nine months, at Gate D of Three Rivers Stadium. There's the Rooney Dormitory at St. Vincent College, Rooney Hall at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Rooney Field at Duquesne University. There's the Rooney Middle School on the North Side, the Rooney Scholarship for North Side students, the Rooney Catholic Youth Association Award, the Rooney 5K race and the Rooney Pace at Yonkers Raceway. And coming to the North Side in 2001, almost certainly, will be Arthur J. Rooney Stadium.

But if you ask family members how Rooney would like to be remembered, they'll mention the famous NFL United Way television commercial. He was filmed late in his life, surrounded by children at Three Rivers Stadium. He thought that represented the best of not just the Steelers and the league, but also Pittsburgh. He always was proud to call himself "a Pittsburgher" because, as he once said, "If you ask a Pittsburgher where some place is, he'll stop and tell you, and if he has nothing to do, he'll take you there."

The family also talks about the memorial plaque in the vestibule at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church on the North Side, Rooney's parish for almost 80 years. "A man of unfeigned charity," the tribute reads.

There are hundreds of stories of Rooney's kindness and generosity. He didn't have to open his wallet, although he was quick to rush to the aid of the sick and needy. He could brighten someone's day or ease his or her suffering with nothing more than a handshake and a kind word.

"No one was in his league when it came to going to funeral homes," Rooney Jr. said. "After he died, the family had a draft to divide his belongings. I picked his prayer book with my No. 1 pick. He kept his funeral cards in there. There were hundreds and hundreds."

Handwritten postcards from Rooney were considered treasures.

Billy Sullivan, the late owner of the New England Patriots, recalled receiving one in 1984 concerning former Steelers running back Greg Hawthorne, who had just joined the Patriots.

"I got to know the young man," Rooney wrote. "He's a fine human being who can contribute to the success of any team."

"I went into our locker room and showed it to Greg," Sullivan said. "Tears came to his face."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Tony Dungy has a similar memory. He played for the Steelers from 1977-78.

"When I got traded to San Francisco, Mr. Rooney sent a letter to my mom saying how proud he was to have had me on the team. I was only a backup there for a short time, but that letter was a thrill for my parents. He did that kind of stuff all the time."

Gerald Ford once pushed through a crowd to meet Rooney. Tip O'Neill was a friend. Lawrence, Foerster and politician James J. Coyne were among his closest confidants. Frank Sinatra used to send him cigars regularly.

But you didn't have to be powerful or rich to be Rooney's pal. "He always used to remind us that he wasn't a big shot and we weren't either," said Dan Rooney, the eldest of Rooney's five sons.

Shortly before Rooney Sr. died, a black man approached Dan and Art Jr. at Mercy Hospital, claiming to be their father's "best friend." The sons didn't know him, but they listened raptly as he explained he was a porter at the airport. It turned out he used to handle Rooney Sr.'s luggage.

"He really thought he was my dad's best friend," Rooney Jr. said. "That's how The Chief made him feel. He always had that knack with people."

Ralph Giampaolo, a long-time member of the Three Rivers Stadiums grounds crew who died in 1990, used to tell a wonderful Rooney story. He was hospitalized for three months in 1987 after a kidney transplant. Rooney offered to help with the medical bills. He visited at least once a week and regularly sent fruit baskets. He made sure Giampaolo's widowed mother had a ride to and from the hospital.

But it was a chance meeting with Rooney at Rooney's dog track in Palm Beach, Fla., that Giampaolo always remembered. Rooney found out he was there and invited him up to his box, where he and his wife, Kathleen, were having dinner with sportscaster Curt Gowdy and his wife.

"I'll never forget the way he introduced me," Giampaolo recalled. " 'This is Ralph Giampaolo, a member of our organization.' Not a member of the grounds crew. Not some rinky-dink bum. But a member of our organization. As far as Gowdy knew, I was a vice president of the team. Mr. Rooney made me feel 10 feet tall."

Rooney Jr. laughed when he heard that story.

"He loved the grounds crew guys. He used to yell at me for not taking the free little bottles of whiskey when I flew first class. He made me bring them back for (head groundskeeper) Dirt DiNardo to give to his men."

Rooney Jr. said he hears new stories about his father all the time. When he attended the funeral of Mary Roseboro, his dad's long-time housekeeper, in February, he was cornered by Evan Baker Jr., the funeral director at Jones Funeral Home in the Hill District.

"He's the nephew of Cum Posey, who ran the Homestead Grays," Rooney Jr. said. "He just wanted to tell me how The Chief helped keep the team going financially. I had heard bits and pieces about that over the years, but to hear it in such detail was amazing."

"My father really was a man of the people," Dan Rooney said.

All the people.

"Edward Bennett Williams once told me my father was friends with every hoodlum in America," Rooney Jr. said. "The Chief wouldn't have been insulted. People were people to him."

"He always said he wasn't a saint, that he touched all the bases in life," Dan Rooney said.

Rooney's love for the race track -- he took his wife to Belmont Park for their honeymoon -- is legendary. Not so well-known was his willingness to use his fists for a good cause.

According to family lore, Rooney was dining one night in the late-1920s at Luchow's in New York City when he and the other patrons were disturbed by a very big and very loud drunk. Rooney quieted him, befriended him, even bought him several drinks. Finally when the man was good and soused, Rooney taught him a lesson about manners by giving him a thorough whipping.

"I just want to thank you for what you did because that lout has been bothering people in here for too long," another patron told Rooney before shaking his hand and introducing himself.

It was Al Smith, the governor of New York and later a presidential candidate.

"My father could be so tough," Rooney Jr. said. "He always taught us, 'Treat people the way you want to be treated.' But then he'd add, 'But never ever allow them to mistake your kindness for weakness.'

"I have to smile when I think of how he's remembered as he was at the end as a kind, old, wise gentleman. He was all that and more, but he also was a swashbuckler in his day. He was Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in 'Boom Town' and 'San Francisco.' He lived a full life in a lot of different ways."

That life ended officially on Aug. 25, 1988, but the end really came eight days earlier. Mary Regan, Rooney's secretary since 1952, remembers Aug. 17 as another brutally hot day in a summer of record heat. Rooney visited a funeral home in Oakland that afternoon to pay his respects to the relative of someone on the grounds crew, then returned to his office to take a brief nap. Not long after he awoke at 5 p.m., he was felled by a massive stroke. He slipped into a coma Aug. 22 and was pronounced dead at 7:45 a.m. on Aug. 25 after doctors removed the respirator that aided his breathing.

"He was ready, I'm sure," Regan said. "He always wanted to go that way. He never wanted to end up in a nursing home. He didn't want to end up among strangers."

An estimated 5,000 people paid their respects to Rooney during visitation at St. Peter Aug. 26. His funeral the next day might have been the largest in Pittsburgh history. The regular Saturday farmers' market on the North Side had to be canceled so mourners could use the parking lot off West Commons. More than 1,100 people filled St. Peter for the 80-minute service. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Mayor Sophie Masloff were there as were DiNardo, Giampaolo and the rest of the grounds crew. Another 200 to 300 watched the service on wide-screen televisions in the church hall downstairs.

Rooney was buried next to his wife, who died in 1982, at North Side Catholic Cemetery in Ross.

"I'll always remember that funeral procession," Dan Rooney said. "We went through some of the toughest areas of the city to get to the cemetery, but people would come out of their houses and be wearing a Steelers jersey and holding up 'Goodbye Art' signs as we passed by. That part of it was really something."

Like Rooney Jr., Regan said a day doesn't go by when she doesn't think of Rooney. Ten years later, she still visits his statue at least twice a week. Her desk at Steelers headquarters is just outside his old office, which has been converted into the team library. Each day when she sits down and looks up, she sees him staring back at her from a huge portrait, a big smile on his face, a cigar in his hand. She figures she's the luckiest person in the place.

"People say to me that he sounded too good to be true," Regan said. "But he was the genuine thing. He wasn't a saint on Earth or anything like. He was just a good, wonderful man."

Even if he slept in occasionally.

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