Smiles, Tears, and Amazing Memories

By Teresa Varley Steelers.com  

Dan Rooney’s life and legacy were celebrated at The Ireland Funds Pittsburgh Gala.

There is no doubt, somewhere up in heaven, Dan Rooney’s Irish eyes were smiling this St. Patrick’s Day. 

At an event he created, one he poured his heart and soul into, it was Rooney’s life and legacy that was celebrated at The Ireland Funds Pittsburgh Gala. “It’s emotional, at times difficult, but at the same time it is something that should be celebrated,” said his son, Steelers President Art Rooney II, who spoke at the dinner and did the official toast. “I know the people who came in were excited to be part of it, Commissioner (Roger) Goodell, Bill Cowher, and General (Michael) Hayden. They were special to him. It was a special night.”

Heinz Field, the home of his beloved Steelers, was turned into the Emerald Isle for the night, as guests aglow in green shared stories and memories, tears flowing and laughter abundant. 

Rooney, along with Pittsburgh businessman Anthony J.F. O’Reilly, created The Ireland Fund in 1976, which later merged with the American Irish Foundation to create the American Ireland Funds, the leading charitable organization benefiting Ireland, which has now become known as The Ireland Funds.  

Rooney was a driving force in the success the organization had seen over the years, helping with The Ireland Funds’ mission of promoting programs of peace and reconciliation, arts and culture, education and community development throughout Ireland. During Rooney’s time as United States Ambassador to Ireland he visited every county in Ireland, helping to bring peace between the North and the South, something he took great pride in. 

“People recognize that Ireland is better as far as bringing peace,” Rooney said prior to his passing. And that is what he wanted, what he dreamt about, for the country his family immigrated from. He wanted peace. 

“It is amazing. My uncles always kidded him saying he took a trip to Ireland every year and turned it into a job,” said Art Rooney II. “He really loved the country, loved the people, and made it a part of his life that unexpectedly became one of the priorities in his life.”

The organization is one that isn’t just active in Pittsburgh, but has nationwide and international support. This year alone there were events from New York to San Francisco, and as far reaching as Australia and Japan, as it has reached a total of 12 countries. All a result of Rooney’s passion for helping Ireland.

The Ireland Funds of Philadelphia honored Art Rooney Sr. in 1989, a year after his passing, with the Humanitarian Award.  The event in Pittsburgh has grown through the years, honoring those in business, sports and philanthropy who have had an impact on aiding the efforts in Ireland. Dan Rooney and the entire family were honored in 1993, Bill Cowher was honored in 1998, and Sidney Crosby in 2008, just to name a few. 

As has been the case since moving the event to Heinz Field, it was transformed into an Irish pub, complete with music and dancing, and all the touches that would make you think you were in Dublin. There were special tributes throughout to Rooney, including a flight simulator because of his love of flying, a wall filled with pictures that the avid photographer took, and much more. But as Rooney would have wanted it, the event was about helping others, benefitting the work done by The Ireland Funds and Duquesne University, where he is an alumnus. 

Among the many on hand to celebrate Rooney's legacy were Bill Cowher, Ryan Shazier, Charlie Batch, Jim Rohr and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who had a close relationship with him. 

“He was very special to me,” said Goodell. “He was a special mentor and like a father-figure to me. Very early on he realized I had Pittsburgh roots through my college time. That was something he found attractive in the sense of we had a lot to talk about and a lot in common. I find him such an honest, thoughtful, caring man. For me, when I was here in college, to look up to somebody like Dan Rooney and then have a relationship with him. That relationship turned into him being the one who told me I was commissioner. He is the one who mentored me and taught me about this league. But the things I will be remember most are what he meant to me and my family.

“I remember him always telling me about having the Ireland Funds Dinner. This meant a great deal to him. We talk about family, football and Ireland. Those meant so much to him. It was who he was.

“I miss him greatly. He was such a force in the NFL, such a force in some many lives and represented this community. He loved Pittsburgh. I miss not having that.”   

Retired General Hayden, the former CIA director and director of the National Security Agency (NSA), was one of the keynote speakers, sharing stories of his relationship with Rooney that began when he was a kid growing up on the North Side, playing football at St. Peters grade school, and working as a Steelers’ ball boy during training camp and continued throughout the years.

“Dan kind of bookended my life,” said Hayden. “Early on I knew him through St. Peters and the football team. I used to help him coach and then took over the team when he got busy with the Steelers. He was like a mentor to me, an uncle to me, during that time. He expanded my horizons. The first time I saw the ocean I was with him. Danny was driving in Kingston, Rhode Island, and as we were nearing Narraganset, on the way to where Steelers training camp was then, and we came up over a hill and it looked like a dark cloud and I realized it was the Atlantic. It was the first time I had ever seen the ocean. He broadened my horizons. 

“I was gone from Pittsburgh for 40 years, but we stayed in touch. Near the end of my time in government I was party to some things that made the news. He would periodically give me a ring, see how things were going, and tell me to come up for the games. He always went out of his way to help. He gave me broader perspectives than I ever would have had. 

“Ireland was important to Dan’s family, as it is mine. My family goes back to Mayo. My wife and I have traveled there and enjoyed visiting Ireland. We visited Dan when he was there as Ambassador. I was at a seminar and we came back and had dinner at the residence with him and Pat. We compared notes. He asked me about different things dealing with the state department. He came to visit me when I was director of NSA. He asked if he could come visit and I said sure. He brought the entire family, they were all on vacation, and they brought a bus. He visited my office and the NSA museum. Family meant so much to him.

“He was all about faith, family, football…and Ireland.” 


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