Steelerettes reunite for 50th anniversary
Veterans of the Steelers' cheerleading squad of the 1960s: front row, from left: Dianne Rossini, Valerie Miller, Marlene Pizzuti. Back row, from left: Barbara Kruze, Lynn Moran, Noreen Modery, Jeanne Rattigan and Denise Hughes.
The 1963 Steelerettes high-kicking.
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In 1961 -- when the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing football in Oakland, losing most of their games and having trouble selling tickets -- 16 young women were recruited to cheer on the team and rev up the fans.
The Steelerettes were coeds enrolled in "secretarial science" courses at what was then the Robert Morris School of Business, which offered two-year business courses Downtown.
The Steelerettes' reign ended in 1970, when patriarch Art Rooney gave the order to "fire the cheerleaders," said his son Art Rooney Jr. in a 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interview. "My dad never did like that stuff."
As the Steelerettes celebrate the 50th anniversary of their founding, the school that is now Robert Morris University will honor them at Homecoming festivities this weekend.
"This is an historic homecoming" with the school commemorating its 90th anniversary, said Jonathan Potts, senior director of public relations. In recent years, 400-500 alumni have made the homecoming trip to the Moon campus. More are expected this year, including 23 Steelerettes who are coming for activities that include a Saturday reception.
"Robert Morris has always been good to us," said Dianne Feazell Rossini of Uniontown. "Last year 10 of us sat in the president's box at Homecoming."
A commemorative bench at Joe Walton Stadium immortalizes the Steelerettes.
It was a fluke that got the school involved in cheerleading. William V. Day was a vice president at Robert Morris, which didn't have a football team, so some students had adopted the Steelers as their team. Mr. Day was also the entertainment coordinator for the Steelers, a team without cheerleaders.
With an overall record of 121-188-13, the Steelers were having trouble selling tickets, and Mr. Day thought cheerleaders could help. The Steelerettes got off to a bumpy start. Sports writers skewered them for inappropriate cheers -- such as yelling "Go Steelers!" when the opposing team was running down the field for a touchdown.
After that "Mr. Day made us take football tests," Ms. Rossini said. "We were supposed to have at least a small understanding of football."
Ms. Rossini, from the 1963 squad, (in 1962 the name of her school changed to Robert Morris Junior College) is one of a core of Steelerettes who live in Western Pennsylvania. They reunited 10 years ago when Heinz Field opened, and have stayed in touch since then. They call themselves The Rah-Rah Sisterhood.
The reunion effort has been helped greatly by the www.steelerettes.com website that she started in the late '90s.
"It's really hard to find women" once you lose track of them, she said, because some of them changed their names when they married. The site currently has biographies and "then" and "now" photos of 38 Steelers cheerleaders.
The children and spouses of Steelerettes enjoy telling friends -- and complete strangers -- about the cheerleading squad that many current fans are unaware of.
Barbara Pawlesh Kruze of Moon said her husband, Jack, is fond of chatting up strangers who are wearing Steelers garb.
"Jack will say, 'Here's a bit of trivia. This lady was a Steelers cheerleader.' Most people will say the Steelers never had cheerleaders," said Mrs. Kruze, who cheered from 1964 to 1966.
"We had to provide our own transportation and uniforms," said Noreen Mercer Modery of Bethel Park. The uniforms were a far cry from the belly-baring, curve-revealing outfits worn by current National Football League cheerleaders.
When the first Steelerettes took to the field at Forbes Field on Sept. 24, 1961, they wore hard hats on their heads. Their uniforms were gold knee-length bibbed jumpers.
The hard hats were dropped later, and uniforms changed over the years, which can be seen on the Steelerettes website. But skirts were always rather long, tops were always demure and feet were clad in white socks with sneakers or saddle oxfords. When Mrs. Modery made the squad in 1964, "we wore black, one-piece leotards with black skirts and gold cummerbunds. By then it was more dancing than cheering. We did Steelers half-time shows" at Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium and did some shows at Robert Morris.
None of the Steelerettes has anecdotes about Steelers from that era because "we really were not allowed to fraternize with the players. That was Mr. Rooney's rule," Mrs. Modery said.
"I wanted to be a Steelerette for another year, though I graduated from the secretarial science course," Mrs. Modery said. "I was going to take a course or two so that I would be eligible, but in the summer of 1965 I got married and you could not be a married cheerleader."
The Steelerettes is the bond that has kept many of these women getting together regularly for meetings, lunches and weekend getaways to Deep Creek, Md. They wear jeans and black and gold sweatshirts to make visits to nursing homes.
Many are still bonded to their school, looking for ways to give back. Four of them, including Mrs. Modery and Mrs. Kruz, are active in the university alumni association council.
The women interviewed have grown children and grandchildren.
Mrs. Modery is an office manager in Upper St. Clair. Mrs. Kruz has worked 22 years in the Moon Area School District, and is an administrative assistant in an elementary school. Ms. Rossini has been chief deputy treasurer of Fayette County since 1991.
All are lifelong Steelers fans. Now they do their cheering from couches with their family and friends.
First Published October 6, 2011 4:58 am