WHEELING - Art Rooney Jr., the second son of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Arthur J. Rooney Sr., spoke in Wheeling Tuesday, offering an insider's view of the Steelers' glory years and sharing personal recollections of his legendary father, known to everyone else as "The Chief."
Rooney, 75, and Pittsburgh sportswriter Jim O'Brien gave a two-hour presentation for the Ohio County Public Library's Lunch With Books series. An audience of 168 people listened in rapt attention as the speakers told of the late Rooney's outgoing personality and recalled the family's connections to the Wheeling area.
"It was the highest attendance in the 13-year history of the Lunch With Books program," said Sean Duffy, the library's adult programming coordinator.
Photo by Linda Comins
Art Rooney Jr., left, and Pittsburgh sportswriter Jim O’Brien share stories about Rooney’s late father, Pittsburgh Steelers founder Arthur J. Rooney Sr., in Wheeling Tuesday.
Art Rooney Sr., and his brother, who became a Franciscan friar and missionary, played baseball with the Wheeling Stogies, and a photograph of them in their Stogies uniforms is on the cover of Art Jr.'s memoir, "Ruanaidh" (Irish Gaelic for Rooney).
"I used a picture of Dad and his brother playing baseball in Wheeling, W.Va., because I knew he'd like that," he said.
He added that the Steelers held training camp at West Liberty for a time.
Art Rooney Jr., who served as the team's scouting director during the formation of the Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, related that his father missed seeing Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" and subsequent touchdown because he was on the stadium elevator at that pivotal moment. Prior to that play, he explained, "It looked like we had lost the game. My Dad was going down to the dressing room. He thought we were going to lose, and he wanted to tell the players it had been a great season ... He never got to see that (play)."
O'Brien shared what he called "the best story I've ever heard about Art Rooney." When the senior Rooney's wife died, a friend was at the funeral home and encountered a high school classmate whose father had died and was being shown at the same funeral parlor.
The man went to the other room to pay his respects to the classmate's father and noticed that there were few flowers and few names in the guest book. After the man returned, Art Rooney Sr. asked where he had gone; the Steelers owner went immediately to the other room and learned that the dead man was a retired city firefighter named McNamara. Later, when an Allegheny County commissioner and the Pittsburgh mayor arrived to pay their respects to Mrs. Rooney, Rooney Sr. told them, "Be sure to go back and offer your condolences to our friend McNamara," O'Brien said.
When a florist's deliveryman arrived at the funeral home with both arms loaded with floral tributes to Mrs. Rooney, her widower told him, "Mrs. Rooney has enough flowers. Take these back to Mr. McNamara." The next day, the observer related to O'Brien, "The room looked like Phipps Conservatory," with flowers filling the room where McNamara's casket rested, and McNamara's guest book bore signatures of Steelers stars, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis and National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who had paid their respects to the stranger at Rooney's urging.
"That story tells you all you need to know about why Art Rooney is Art Rooney," O'Brien concluded.
The younger Rooney said his father set a good example: "We never heard him swear. We never heard him tell a dirty story. He was always respectful of women. He told his sons, 'Always treat people the way you want to be treated. But don't allow them to mistake kindness for weakness."' The Steelers founder "never really knew a stranger. He just liked people," his son said.
An unassuming man, the elder Rooney always wore a sweater, golf shirt and tie to the office and could be found picking up papers and trash from ashtrays in the hallways, his son said. After one such encounter, a rookie player told Joe Greene that he'd met "the nicest guy. He has to be one of the janitors." Greene informed the "green" player that the man actually "owns the place."
O'Brien said groundskeeper Steve "Dirt" Denardo told him that one time, "The Chief" and the Catholic archbishop of New York were on their way to the Allegheny Club at Three Rivers Stadium, when a new elevator operator stopped them because they weren't carrying membership cards. Without making a fuss, Rooney turned and said, "I have to go back to the office."
The team owner and the archbishop were intercepted by the groundskeeper, who interceded with the elevator operator to get them into the exclusive club.