Remembering Art Rooney Sr. / A father's heirlooms still cherished
The sons of Art Rooney Sr., 25 years after his death, continue to honor their iconic father's legacy and hold dear his possessions
August 25, 2013 12:00 PM
Twenty-five years after the death of Art Rooney Sr., his five sons feel his enduring spirit.
Art Rooney Sr. with a horse at Shamrock Farm
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney stands with general manager Kevin Colbert during the 2013 training camp in Latrobe.
Art Rooney Jr., with his wife Kay
Photo courtesy of Tim Rooney
Art Rooney Sr., third from left, with his sons Dan, Art Jr., Pat, John and Tim at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City in 1976 for an Ireland Fund Dinner.
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The five sons arrived at the three-story red brick Victorian on Pittsburgh's North Side, each carrying the same detailed list of their father's belongings.
The sentimental items drew their focus. His prayer book. His Buick. A small porcelain statue of a boy with a ball. Others were pieces that merely filled the rooms. Expensive French provincial furniture. Lamps. A clock.
The Rooney brothers, aged 49 to 56, their hair graying and thinning with varying degrees of intensity, had traveled to their childhood home from as far away as Florida and as close as Mt. Lebanon for this occasion in fall 1988.
Dan and the twins, Pat and John, didn't spend much time studying the list. Art Jr. and Tim were more meticulous. The five gathered around the dining room table, where so many dinners had been spent following the conversational whims of their father, founder of the Steelers.
Dan's oldest son, Art II, would document the decisions made on this day, one through five each round, in order of oldest to youngest. The Rooney boys, just weeks after burying their iconic father, were going to conduct a draft.
Pat made it clear he did not want any part of it; the Chief did not care about material possessions. Art Rooney Sr. had often told his sons, as the family's wealth increased beyond what any child who grew up on the North Side could have imagined, "the more you own, the less freedom you have."
Dan told Pat that he had to participate. Dan had been an authority figure to the twins since they were children, so Pat fell in line.
But, moments after the draft began, Dan got up from the table. Art Jr., seeing his older brother struggling, told Art II to take over making Dan's picks.
Dan excused himself and left the room. It was an odd and eerie feeling, seeing your old man reduced to the things he left behind.
Dan Rooney / A new responsibility
Twenty-five years to the day of his father's passing, Dan Rooney is still in charge at 81 years old. He flies a small plane to and from Steelers training camp in Latrobe with a professional pilot by his side, occasionally walking the sidelines at practice with his pants held up by suspenders.
Art II has been the team's president since 2003, but Dan's role as franchise leader is not ceremonial. While he spent the past three years as the United States' ambassador to Ireland, he is again a daily presence with his franchise.
The Steelers have turned Pittsburgh into Sixburgh under Dan's direction, the firstborn son making good on the faith of his father. With all the success and the trappings of the football life he began working toward as a 14-year-old, it's no wonder that Dan can't remember his first pick from that conflicted family draft back in 1988.
He can, however, remember why he left the room.
"I did not like that process," Dan says. "I just thought it was a distasteful thing."
To Dan, the values his father passed down to him and his brothers -- and the ownership of their individual destinies -- were what held meaning.
That grooming for greatness happened on North Lincoln Avenue, at the house Art Sr. and Kathleen McNulty Rooney bought for $5,000 in 1939 in a neighborhood known for having the city's first "millionaires' row." It had 12 rooms, high ceilings, and a large backyard fit for a fast-growing clan.
When the brothers met for the draft, it was undetermined what would happen to the house. They inherited an equal share of it and talked about turning it into a family office.
But soon, Dan Rooney would decide to buy the family's most-prized heirloom. He had raised his nine children in Mt. Lebanon, and now it was time to come home. Dan purchased his brothers' shares and returned to the house on North Lincoln, despite the neighborhood having deteriorated around it.
He renovated the place, building a two-story extension with a garage to the east. He didn't plan it this way, but today, the Rooney home has a pristine, uninterrupted view of Heinz Field emerging from the ground a few blocks away, a constant reminder of the empire built by the son of a North Side saloon owner.
• • •
When Dan Rooney got his first look at the family home, he was 7 years old, and it felt like a real-life castle.
The boys would spray down the grass in the back yard until it became muddy enough to practice their own brand of trench warfare. In the winters, Art Sr. would show his penchant for creative gaming by putting boards around the blacktop and hosing it down until it froze over for bruising hockey battles.
House and team (Click image for larger version)
Dan always acted like a second father to his younger brothers, and his patriarchal instincts were often called upon when his father was out of town traveling to race tracks. Dan helped run the household with his mother Kathleen (below with Art Rooney Sr.)
His place in the family line, devotion to his duties as the oldest son and the experience of being around a pro football team -- a journey he began as a teenager -- made him a natural to succeed his father in running the Steelers. Dan also decided to buy the family's North Side home.
Art Sr. set the rules, but he was not always there to enforce them, venturing often to the race tracks on the East Coast to develop his natural eye for picking a winner. That left Dan as the man of the house, a role he was happy to take on for his mother, who was the boys' emotional go-to and their greatest ally in dealing with their father.
"She was marvelous," Dan says. "I was with her a lot because I was the oldest."
When his younger brothers would act up, Dan would use physical force if needed to reset the boundaries.
"Dan was like your second father, beating the crap out of you all the time," John says, laughing. "Dan might not have been as lenient as the old man."
Dan handled the serious stuff, too, making sure that the brothers said their rosaries each night.
Still, there was no confusion about who was boss. Art Sr. may have been on the road, but he had this uncanny way of being there in spirit.
"And it didn't seem with much effort," Pat says. "He could instill his presence on you. He didn't have to give you sermons."
Art Sr. and Dan didn't have to have a big talk for the boy to see his future. As a teenager, he started working at Steelers training camp every summer, picking up sweaty jockstraps and making sure each one was clean and accounted for. Even performing such menial tasks, he understood that he eventually would take over for his father, and that knowledge pushed him.
Before Dan had started playing high school football in 1946, the Pittsburgh Press wrote a story with the headline "North Catholic Halfback Problems Are Over -- Dan Rooney is coming." Dan was ribbed by his teammates, but he did become a star player.
The surprising thing was that Art Sr., a man who defined himself by his love of sporting, attended only three of Dan's games in four years.
"He didn't think it was necessary to be showing his kids football," Dan says. "He felt there were more important things to do."
When Pat and John were old enough to play at North Catholic, it was Dan who went to one of their practices to see how they were doing. Dan was in college at Duquesne University and logging lots of hours with the Steelers, but he made time to approach his old coach and tell him to give the boys a shot.
Pat and John, flummoxed freshmen, looked at Dan and said they didn't have helmets that fit. Dan found them two, ordered them to hit the field, and that was the last time the twins played any organized football.
Tim Rooney / A racing life
The walls of Tim Rooney's office at Yonkers Raceway in New York are covered with pictures of his father. Tim, 76, has run the horse track since Art Sr. purchased it in 1972, and it is not an exaggeration to say Tim's entire existence is a creation of his father's love -- and luck.
The Chief may have bought a football team in 1933 for $2,500, but his passions remained boxing, baseball and racing.
In the summer of 1937, the Chief made a stop at Yonkers and got hot. He made enough money to bankroll an ensuing trip to Saratoga, where his legend as one of the best handicappers in the world was born. Art Sr. won a small fortune that day with friend and New York Giants owner Tim Mara as his bookmaker, and Art Sr., riding the wave of gratitude, promised Mara that he would name his newborn third son after him.
The story doesn't stop there. Tim Rooney's daughter, Kathleen Rooney, married one of Tim Mara's grandsons, Chris Mara. Kathleen and Chris produced two movie-star granddaughters, Patricia "Rooney" Mara and Kate Mara, making Tim's the glamorous branch of the Rooney tree.
That Tim still runs the race track where it all started makes sense. In 2009, the NFL forced the Rooneys to choose between the Steelers and their gambling interests. Tim and Pat, who run the Palm Beach Kennel Club in Florida, sold their 16 percent interest in the team.
Tim has always been more interested in racing anyway.
He remembers the way the Chief would take in a race, cigar in hand, with little reaction no matter the result.
Possibly the most treasured part of those race days was getting there. It meant you and the old man were in the car for hours, with nothing to do but talk or listen to a baseball game. The Chief always owned a Buick, but it was the boys who drove it.
On draft day, when Art Jr.'s second pick came around, he selected their father's last Buick, a 1984 Electra. But, within a few years, Art Jr. and Tim agreed that Tim could take the big black tank of a vehicle back to New York with him.
Today, it rests in a garage at Yonkers Raceway, smelling strongly of cigar smoke. Every couple of years or so, Tim will take it for a ride.
• • •
Tim Rooney was 16 years old the first time his father let him drive. He nearly wrecked the car, scraping the side of a tunnel while attempting to change lanes. Art Sr. yelled at him for a bit, and then it was over.
Yonkers Raceway, the last Buick (Click image for larger version)
In the summer of 1937, the Chief made a stop at Yonkers and got hot. He eventually bought the place. Getting to the race was always part of the fun for the Rooney boys. And getting there always meant taking the old man's Buick -- he always owned a Buick.
Art Jr. originally picked the car, a 1984 Electra, but he and Tim later agreed that the car could go to New York to a garage in Yonkers. It still smells like cigar smoke.
Because of the racetrack and its ties to gambling, Tim sold his share of the Steelers in 2009.
The Chief put all of his sons through this rite of passage. Tim became Art Sr.'s go-to guy for road trips because they'd always shared an interest in racing. While his brothers would gladly go to the beach on the family's trips to New Jersey, Tim would tag along with his father and spend time at the stables because he wasn't old enough to enter the track clubhouse.
Yet, in the 1960s, when the Chief became interested in entering the racing business, he didn't appoint Tim. He had a good job in a Pittsburgh investment firm, while Pat and John were working at a copper mill in sales and as a schoolteacher, respectively.
The Chief offered Pat, who was making $4,500 a year, and John, who was making $3,800, a chance to run Liberty Bell, a horse track near Philadelphia, for $8,000 apiece.
"I jumped in my car and drove home and told my wife, 'We're moving,' " Pat says. "In 1960, 8,000 bucks, I just couldn't believe you could make that much money."
In 1970, the Chief purchased the Palm Beach Kennel Club, a South Florida greyhound track. At that point, Tim was ready. He ran the track for a few years until Art Sr. bought Yonkers, handing the reins in New York over to Tim for good. Pat eventually would move to Florida to take over the operation there. The family would sell its share of Liberty Bell, and John would transition into running their oil and gas interests out of Louisiana.
"The Chief gave us the opportunity to have our own identity," Pat says.
Every night, as a matter of routine, the Chief would pick up the phone and call Tim, Pat and John to check in. With Dan and Art Jr., who was in charge of the Steelers' player scouting, all he had to do was walk down the hall of the team's bunker at Three Rivers Stadium.
Pat and John Rooney / Twins' familiar look
Pat and John Rooney haven't lived in Western Pennsylvania since they were 24 years old. They're largely unknown here, but, at 74, they're physically about the closest thing to the Chief as there is.
They've each got a healthy head of hair, just like their father, and they're proud of it.
On the day of the family draft in '88, Pat didn't want to take any of his father's heirlooms, but he wouldn't come away empty-handed either.
After the funeral weeks earlier, he had gone up to the Chief's bathroom on the second floor and found two hairbrushes. They were wooden and oval-shaped, the varnish coming off. Pat had given them to his father for Christmas when he was 10 or 11 years old, and the old man still had them. Pat happily took the brushes back to Florida.
Today, they can be found in Pat's bathroom. He uses them often -- further proof that the most valuable pieces aren't always the ones chosen on draft day.
• • •
For his sons, the image of Art Rooney Sr. brushing lanolin cream into his hair is right up there with him smoking a cigar or saying the rosary. The act happened so often it became ritual.
"The only degree of vanity I ever saw him have was that," Pat says. "He was trying to keep his hair."
Oil, gas and racing (Click image for larger version)
John and Pat were asked to run the Liberty Bell racetrack near Philadelphia. After the family sold it, Pat went to Florida to run the Palm Beach Kennel Club. John would transition into running the family's oil and gas interests out of Louisiana.
As a boy, Pat once gave his father a set of hairbrushes for Christmas. After Art Sr.'s death, Pat reclaimed them and uses them often.
There was no doubt that the Chief became more vain as he aged, his legend growing with each Super Bowl win. People out there -- reporters, photographers, TV cameramen -- were always looking for him.
"He was at a funeral for some big shot," Art Jr. says, "and they panned the crowd. Later that day, we went and had dinner. They had a TV on top of the refrigerator, and he said, 'Hey, here I am again!' I said, 'My God, he's a ham!' "
Art Sr. always looked neat, his shoes shiny. Appearances mattered, and that applied to his sons.
In the '60s, Tim would go to work in Pittsburgh and hope that nobody mentioned the Steelers in the elevator. By the '80s, he'd walk into a meeting in New York and feel like everybody was staring at him.
"They look at you different than they would other people for some crazy reason," Tim says. "You run into the situation an awful lot of times."
Since they were boys, the Chief had taught them not to be "big shots." It's the reason he drove a Buick all those years. When John bought a Lincoln in the early '70s, his father scolded him. When Tim bought a Rolls-Royce, he kept it hidden from the Chief on several of his visits east. Finally, when Tim revealed it to him, Art Sr. was OK with it, especially after he'd been taken for a ride.
His vanity, though, was mostly focused on the hair. One day at Three Rivers, the Chief approached Art Jr. in front of a group of people, noticed his son was losing some hair in back and said, "I thought you'd never go bald! You're going bald!"
Art Jr. didn't know what to say. It certainly didn't make him feel very good.
Art Rooney Jr. / Approval, redemption
Before the Chief died, Art Rooney Jr. began a mission he still holds dear: Keeping alive the legend of his father and those great Steelers teams.
In the early 1980s, Art Jr. hired artist Merv Corning to paint portraits of his father from photographs taken throughout the years. When Corning died in 2006, Art Jr. simply found new artists. His Bethel Park office, where he has handled the family's real estate ventures since 1987, is a shrine to the image of a man he probably never came to know as well as his four brothers did.
To Art Jr., his father is more "the Chief" than Dad, and he'll often refer to Art Sr. that way. Art Jr. reveres his old man, and you can hear it when he dusts off his favorite stories.
Art Jr. knows he's different, too.
"I think everybody thinks of him," Art Jr. says. "But I think I'm the only one that maybe thinks about the approval. Even at this day, 77 years old."
A few weeks ago, Art Jr., took a bad fall on the stairs at his Mt. Lebanon home. He thought about what the Chief might say about it. And in the days after, as he stayed in to rest, he considered that his father might have found the will to go to Mass each morning, injury or not.
"I try to go every day," Art Jr. says. "All the brothers try to go every day. I went Sunday, but I didn't go during the week. It was too much stress, pain, but that's the difference between my dad and me. He would have been there."
On the family's draft day, with the second pick, Art Jr. selected the Chief's weathered red prayer book, the pages yellowed from constant use. The leather-bound book, bought around 1950, contains a prayer card with the Chief's markings in pen. The old man was keeping a strict count of his devotion. The tally stops in August 1988.
• • •
The words in that book were a crucial part of the code Art Sr. lived by: You went to Mass, you said the rosary, you treated everyone with respect, and, if you were a man who wanted to smoke tobacco, it had better be from a cigar.
The red prayer book (Click image for larger version)
Art Rooney Jr., with his wife Kay, above, chose to keep the Chief's weathered red prayer book.
The leather-bound book, bought around 1950, contains a prayer card with the Chief's markings in pen. The old man was keeping a strict count of his devotion. The tally stops in August 1988.
There were no gray areas as far as he was concerned. Art Jr. remembered him once saying "show me a musician and I'll show you a bum," and he assumed that logic applied also to actors. Still, after graduating from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Art Jr. decided to go to acting school in New York. His father paid for it -- begrudgingly.
"He thought it was terrible," Art Jr. says. "Terrible."
Art Jr. did not become an actor. He came back to Pittsburgh. His mother had to ask Art Sr. to give him a job with the Steelers. He started off selling tickets. During those days, the product was lacking. Art Jr. had played football in college, so he felt he could contribute his knowledge to help bring in some better players. The Chief was skeptical, but why not let the kid try his hand at scouting?
With this chance to prove something to his father, Art Jr. lived out of a suitcase for years. He rose to director of scouting and helped Steelers coach Chuck Noll pick the players that made them all famous.
But Art Jr. didn't know how much credit his father actually gave him for the team's success. Sometimes, the Chief would bring visitors into Art Jr.'s office because he wanted to show them the scouting process. That was always nice.
One memory would stick out. Art Jr. was attending a racing meeting for his family. A man who knew the Chief introduced himself to Art Jr. and told him, "Your dad told me you were the main guy building the team." Twice, before the meeting was over, Art Jr. asked the man to repeat what the Chief had said, and each time it rang true.
"I couldn't believe he said that!" Art Jr. says.
He'd have to hold onto that moment forever. Because when the Steelers' talent dried up and Dan decided to fire Art Jr. in January 1987, Art Sr. didn't stand in the way.
Art Jr. was heartbroken.
That day in the fall of 1988, as the five brothers arrived at the house on North Lincoln, Art Jr. walked through the door with very mixed emotions.
The Rooneys / The line continues
The Rooney brothers don't see each other today as much as they would like. Dan is still consumed by the Steelers. The other four spend part of the winter together with their wives in South Florida, but they also have golf games to maintain and gaggles of grandchildren to spoil.
The young generations that carry the Rooney name grow up with a different set of expectations than the brothers did. But they can look to the sons of the Chief as examples. Five men, successful in whatever endeavors they took on, each still married to the same woman they first shared vows with more than half a century ago.
Art II, in the room with the brothers that day at the family home, was offered a rare glimpse of the five together alone. He left with an appreciation for his family's past.
In the years that followed, he would come upon his own heirlooms from his grandfather.
At Three Rivers Stadium, the Chief had equipment manager Tony Parisi keep hidden a statue of the Virgin Mary with a lid on it for holy water. Several times over the years, Art Sr. would sprinkle some of it in the locker room.
Parisi gave Art Rooney II the statue, and it still contained a few drops. When the Steelers moved to Heinz Field in 2001, Art II found the statue, took it into the locker room and poured the rest of the sacred tonic onto the fresh carpet.