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Two Funerals, One Steelers Legend

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 2, 2023 3:01 am

Two Funerals, One Steelers Legend

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 2, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Jim O'Brien describes Pittsburgh Steelers' founding owner Art Rooney, Sr. as "the grandfather he needed." Rooney taught O'Brien the importance of always attending the funeral, whether of a friend or an acquaintance. Jim tells the incredible story of what Art Rooney, Sr. did for a man he barely even know while they were both in the middle of deep grief.

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Let's ride. This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And to search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeart Radio app, or wherever you get your podcasts. Up next, we bring you Jim O'Brien, a Pittsburgh native, a sports journalist, and the author of the Pittsburgh Proud series of books. Today, Jim brings us a story about Steelers legend, the chief, the founding owner of the franchise, Art Rooney Sr. I'd like to tell you a story about my favorite person in all of pro sports. He's like the grandfather that I never had.

My grandparents were all gone by the time I was a little boy, so I guess I needed a grandpap. And Art Rooney filled the bill. He was the nicest guy that I ever met in the sports world. I met him when I was a teenager, and I went out to see the Steelers practice one day at the fairgrounds in the South Park area of Pittsburgh.

Boy, was that a dump. They had horses out there during the war, and they had horses out there during the week, and sometimes the players had to watch where they stepped on the grass. But somehow the Steelers back in the 50s managed to practice there, and Art Rooney was normally on the sideline. I met him one day on the sideline and talked to him, and he told me who some of his favorite players were, and some of his favorite sports writers. And he told me who his favorite sports writers were, and just to show you what kind of a man he was. The next day, he sends me a postcard, and he apologizes for having the temerity to tell me who his favorite sports writers were.

Now, I was a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. I was 19 years old, and Art Rooney's apologizing to me. You know, I was the sports editor of the student newspaper, apologizing to me, but that's what a humble man he was. And Art Rooney is responsible for the reason that I go to so many funerals today. He says you can't miss a funeral of a friend or an acquaintance. You've got to show up, and if you never hear another story about Art Rooney, this one should suffice to tell you exactly what a wonderful man he was. I went to the funeral when his wife Kathleen died.

I was covering the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time for the Pittsburgh Press, and she had died while we were in Seattle. And a couple days later, they had a funeral at what they called the Rooney Church, which was St. Peter's on the north side of Pittsburgh. The reason they called it the Rooney Church was for twofold. One is Mr. Rooney was always seated in one of the first pews in that church on a daily basis.

And secondly, no one in the community gave more money to St. Peter's than did Art Rooney. So his wife Kathleen dies, and the funeral was held at Devlin's Funeral Home, also on the north side of Pittsburgh. And just about everybody in Pittsburgh showed up for the funeral, and just about every priest when they had the mass at St. Peter's, just about every priest showed up for the funeral. George Young, a good friend of the Rooney's and at the time the general manager of the New York Giants, said that nobody in Pittsburgh, no Catholic should be dying at that particular time because there wouldn't be any priest to offer the last rites. So a friend of mine, Dan Lackner, who owned a paper company in Pittsburgh and of course had the Steelers account, he was a good Catholic and he had worked for the Steelers when he was a teenager at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, a school well known for later producing the likes of Danny Marino, who went on to become an All-America quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, and then an All-Pro quarterback for the Miami Dolphins.

So Art Rooney is at the door greeting all of his friends and acquaintances as they come through the front door of Devlin's Funeral Home and offer their condolences for the death of Kathleen. And Art Rooney was almost dismissing most of their comments because they were usually the same and my friend Dan Lackner showed up and Dan was getting in line getting ready to talk to Mr. Rooney when all of a sudden somebody to his left went, pssst, pssst, hey, Dan, Dan. And Dan looked over and it was a fellow named Joe McNamara.

I've been a classmate of his at Central Catholic. And Dan said, what are you doing here? And he said, I'm here because my father died and we have him in the back room here. He said, I didn't know what to do. He said, we don't have many people left that still knew my dad.

My mom's been gone, but I thought I'd have him here for at least a day. I didn't know that Art Rooney's wife was going to be at the same funeral home, but we're doing the best we can. And since Dan Lackner had to wait a while before he could get to see Art Rooney, he said, come on, I'll go in the back with you to offer my condolences.

And you're listening to author Jim O'Brien, a sports journalist, a Pittsburgh native, and the author of Pittsburgh Proud, a series of books about his hometown, telling the stories of the legendary Art Rooney, Sr. You can't miss a funeral, he said. A friend anyone you know or care about, you've got to show up. When we come back, more of a story to tell.

You've got to show up. When we come back, more of the story of Art Rooney, Sr., as told by the man he considered Art Rooney, Sr., his grandfather, the grandfather he never had, here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we're back with Our American Stories and Jim O'Brien's story about the Pittsburgh Steelers founding owner Art Rooney Sr. We just left off with Jim's friend Dan Lackner at the funeral of Rooney's wife Kathleen. While in line to give Rooney his condolences, Dan ran into a friend and former classmate whose father was also being remembered at the funeral home, Joe McNamara.

Let's pick up where we last left off. So he goes in the back room with his former classmate Joe McNamara and he walks into the room and there's a little dais there so to speak, a table where you could sign your name that you had paid your respects. And he signs his name and he said there were only about three or four other signatures on the pad. And he said there were only three or four signatures on the pad and he said and he said there weren't many flowers in that room at the funeral home. He went back out and as he entered the lobby of the funeral home Art Rooney spied him and Art Rooney walks over to him and he didn't miss a trick and he said, hey Dan what are you doing in the back room?

Kathleen's over here. And Dan Lachner said, oh an old friend of mine from Central Catholic High School, his father died, a guy named Joe McNamara, same name as his son. And Mr. Rooney says, well come on let's go back show me where he is and I'll pay my respects to your friend. You've got to remember that Art Rooney was known for going to more funerals in Pittsburgh than anybody.

He just always showed up, said a prayer and he had a very comforting effect on people. I remember when my brother Danny died, I was editing a newspaper that had a circulation of about 5,000 at best and Mr. Rooney and all the club officials from the Steelers showed up at that funeral home to pay their respects and everybody he touched in the room felt like a cardinal or a bishop had just blessed them. So Art Rooney's in the back room with his friend Dan Lachner. He signs in, he tells the son that he's sorry that his father had died and he learns that his father had lived on Dawson Street in Oakland, not far from Forbes Field or Pitt Stadium.

And he had died at the VA hospital in Oakland. It was very familiar to Art Rooney because in addition to going to so many funerals, he also paid many visits to friends that were in hospitals in the community. So he's back there talking to Joe McNamara, you'd have thought he was the mayor of Pittsburgh.

And Mr. Rooney remembered that his dad had been a city fireman, he always had a soft spot in his heart for them. So now he goes back out in the lobby and lo and behold the mayor of Pittsburgh is in the doorway and that was Pete Flaherty, good Irishman from the north side and another north sider Tom Forster, the Allegheny County Commissioner, one of the top politicians in the city. He was in the doorway with his friend Pete Flaherty and they were ready to offer their condolences to Art Rooney, said how sorry they were that Kathleen had died. And Art Rooney kind of shrugs it off and he says to him, he says hey listen, he said you fellas don't forget to go to the back room and pay your respects to our friend McNamara. And Forster shoots a look at Flaherty to see if he knows the McNamara that Art Rooney is referring to. He gets a blank look and Forster says I don't know any fireman named McNamara and Rooney rather testedly, he was a little upset with them, says yes you do.

The one from Dawson Street, Art and Oakland. So Forster and Flaherty look at each other and they sort of gave a look like they knew what Mr Rooney was talking about. And Forster says oh that one and he and Pete Flaherty go back to the other room. So the rest of the day that weekend Art Rooney had everyone pay their respects to our friend McNamara and he had them sign the visitor's book. It went like that the rest of the day and when I came back the next day my friend Lachner was still there and so was McNamara. He said we decided to stay another day. So Dan Lachner said that he went into the back room to see Joe McNamara's father once again and he said you could hardly see Joe McNamara in the casket. He said the room was full of flowers.

It looked like Phipps Conservatory. And young McNamara showed the visitor's book to Dan Lachner and there were so many famous Steelers who had signed the book such as Joe Green and Mel Blount and Terry Bradshaw, Andy Russell, so many Hall of Famers. Get this it was signed by Pete Rozelle the NFL Commissioner and Al Davis the owner of the Oakland Raiders.

They've been there too. Everybody who was anybody in the National Football League had signed the book. That's just showing you the way that Art Rooney was and how respected he was in the league and how he got all these people who had come to see him and offer him their condolences that he got them while they were there to sign the book for his friend McNamara.

And I'll tell you you know at the church itself funny things happened. Al Davis was seated in a pew on the aisle in front of Pete Rozelle. So they had been at odds with each other because they were fighting about things and Davis was threatening to take the NFL to court and so forth for differences that they had.

But even on that day when the priest who was officiating the mass told everybody to give the sign of peace to the person in front of them or behind them, I saw Al Davis shake hands with Pete Rozelle. And somehow I thought that Art Rooney arranged it I guess in his own way. But think of that.

Just think of that. Art Rooney's wife has died and Art Rooney is steering everybody that comes to the funeral home to a man that he doesn't even know. But he's from Pittsburgh.

He was a fireman. And as far as Art Rooney was concerned, he was the best of friends. That's all you need to know about Art Rooney.

And a terrific job on the production by Robbie and a spectacular piece of storytelling by Jim O'Brien about a legend in the sports business, an owner's owner, literally one of the men who started the NFL, started it from scratch when there was nothing there and built it up. And anyone who's known Art Rooney or his family will say one thing. He was a Catholic. He was a Catholic before he was anything. And this is what the Catholic Church aspires to be.

It's what any church or synagogue or mosque aspires to be. And that is a servant to the city and a servant to the people around them. And there is no better story to tell about Art Rooney than that story. It shows his heart. It shows his compassion for others, even at the greatest moment of his grieving, the loss of his wife, who was everywhere with him in Pittsburgh and always at that church, the Daily Mass.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-02 04:26:14 / 2023-02-02 04:34:16 / 8

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