James Francis Lally, an affable labor leader who rose through the ranks of the steamfitters union and forged friendships with powerful politicians, died Monday at his home in Oakland. He was 90.
He served for 33 years as the business agent for Steamfitters Union Local 449, ran the city's stadium authority from 1980 to 1994 and spent one term on Pittsburgh's City Council in the late 1970s when Richard Caliguiri was mayor.
A lifelong city resident, he swam daily at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, ushered regularly at St. Paul Cathedral and knew many of the city's most colorful figures, including boxers Billy Conn and Fritzie Zivic and Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr.
Dan Whalen, a retired steamfitter and mechanical engineer, attended a union convention with Mr. Lally in the 1950s when both men met their future wives on a beach in Ocean City, N.J.
"If you had a line of people that Jim Lally helped, it would start at the funeral home, wind Downtown to the Federal Building and back to Oakland, single file," Mr. Whalen said. As a union leader, "He could get together with anybody. He always respected people," Mr. Whalen said.
Irish Catholic to his core, Mr. Lally grew up in Oakland during the Depression and hustled to earn money. As a "Shabbos goy," he lit candles for Orthodox Jewish families each week, washed cars, sold newspapers and skated as an extra at the Ice Capades at Duquesne Gardens.
He knew how to sneak into Forbes Field, too. One Sunday morning, on the porch of the old Schenley Hotel, he asked slugger Babe Ruth for an autograph, said his daughter, Michelle Lally Skender of Churchill.
"My father's blue jeans had a tear at the knee. Babe Ruth tugged on it and ripped a hole in them. Then he gave my dad a $5 bill and said, 'Here kid, go buy yourself a new pair of pants.' "
Mr. Lally's mother, Helen, worked as a clerk at the Joseph Horne's department store but in the mid-1930s landed a job supervising a sewing project with the Works Progress Administration. Mr. Lally's widow, Joan, said her mother-in-law encouraged his interest in politics. Mr. Lally became active in Democratic circles in the 1940s and befriended state Sen. Joseph M. Barr, who later served as mayor of Pittsburgh. He also was friendly with David L. Lawrence, a Pittsburgh mayor who became governor.
A 1941 Central Catholic High School graduate, Mr. Lally began his apprenticeship in Steamfitters Local No. 449 in 1944. The union's members do heating, air conditioning, refrigeration and process pipe work. He retired as the steamfitters' business agent in 1993.
"He was a people person who always wanted to help other human beings," said Rich Stanizzo, who succeeded Mr. Lally as president of the Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council.
Mr. Lally gathered on Tuesday mornings at La Prima coffee shop in the Strip District to trade stories with judges, lawyers and politicos. Christian Manders, chief operating officer of Promethean LifeSciences in Uptown, said Mr. Lally's stories were a romp through local history.
"I took him to some Democratic Party events," Mr. Manders said. "It was like taking the pope around. That guy got so many jobs for so many people."
During the 1970s and '80s, Mr. Lally was elected president of the construction trades council, which represented 30,000 members. He also served as executive vice president of the Allegheny Labor Council from 1977 to 1983.
He made unsuccessful bids for city council in 1971 and 1973 before winning election in 1975.
In 1979, Mr. Lally assured Mayor Caliguiri and PPG Industries that there would be no work stoppages during the construction of PPG Place, a $100 million, 5-acre complex in Downtown Pittsburgh. He kept that promise.
Years later, he gave the same assurance to Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster in exchange for union laborers building Pittsburgh International Airport, which opened in 1992.
Mr. Lally lost his bid for re-election to city council in 1979. The following year, he was elected executive director of the city Stadium Authority.
Friends will be received at John A. Freyvogel's, 4900 Centre Ave., Shadyside, from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday and 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday. A Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Monday in St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland. Burial will follow in Calvary Cemetery.
Memorials may be made to St. Paul Cathedral, 108 N. Dithridge St., Pittsburgh 15213 or to the James F. Lally Memorial Scholarship Fund at Central Catholic High School, 4720 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh 15213.
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.