Starkey: Noll touched 'em all
The ditch digger working the grounds of St. Paul Cathedral had a Chuck Noll story to tell. So did the UPS guy sweating buckets as he piled boxes on a dolly.
So did the pastor, the bishop, the maintenance man, the accountant, the landscaper in the black AC/DC T-shirt and the elderly woman who was on her way to serve as an usher for Noll's funeral Mass. All regular people inspired by a regular guy who happened to work in a highly uncommon field.
If you'd wandered into St. Paul on Tuesday morning with no knowledge of the Steelers, you would have thought it an ordinary celebration of an ordinary life.
Which, in many ways, it was.
That is what Noll would have wanted. That is what his wife of 57 years, Marianne, requested. And that is what Bishop David A. Zubik delivered to an audience that included Steelers luminaries past and present.
“Right on point” is how the great Joe Greene described the proceedings.
Not that there weren't extraordinary moments. The sight of the once-Herculean Greene — Noll's first draft pick and the soul of the '70s Steelers — limping into the cathedral as one of the pallbearers, his massive left hand cradling Noll's casket, was at once chilling and beautiful.
One couldn't help but think of another time Greene carried his coach — on his shoulders 40 years ago at Tulane Stadium, after the Steelers' first Super Bowl victory.
The Mass itself emphasized the basics, just as Noll had always done.
“Marianne said she wanted it to be as Chuck's life was: simple, direct and positive,” Zubik explained.
The bishop was the only person at the service to speak of Noll's life. One message came through as clear as the skies above St. Paul's majestic twin spires: Noll, despite his celebrity, never looked down on anyone.
In Noll's view, “everybody was important,” Zubik said, after telling of how Noll gave a leadership talk at a church camp two days after winning his fourth Super Bowl title.
If Pittsburgh loathes anything, it's a phony. Noll was the opposite of that. He was a guy from Cleveland who formed a vision for his “life's work” and went after it the only way he knew how. The long way. No shortcuts.
A plaque on Noll's desk at Three Rivers Stadium carried the inscription: “See everything. Overlook a great deal. Improve a little.” And it fit the surroundings these past few days. Everywhere you looked on the block around St. Paul, you could see everyday people living lives of quiet inspiration. Trying to improve a little.
Zubik is one of them. He's a guy from Ambridge who strikes up a conversation in the down-to-earth manner of, well, a guy from Ambridge. It was hard not to notice that as he spoke with reporters, he'd adorned his crosier with a Terrible Towel.
St. Paul's pastor, Father Kris Stubna, grew up a Steelers fan in Robinson Township. Noll inspired him.
“When I was going into the seminary, I came to learn that (Noll) was a man of great faith who went to Mass every day,” the Rev. Stubna recalled. “To see such a well-known figure carry himself like that was a real inspiration.”
The day before the service, two church workers were constructing a walkway to the rectory. One of them, Joseph Dixon — the man in the AC/DC shirt — tends to the 50 perfectly manicured rose bushes on the property. Noll would have appreciated that. He kept a garden of his own.
Dixon, 48, spoke of his father's reverence for Noll. Robert Dixon was a Korean War veteran who spent four decades as an electrician at Homestead Steel Works. He had a heart attack on the job and missed two years but returned to put in eight more, his son said, before his heart gave out at age 56.
The man working with Joseph Dixon, Emidio DeIuliis, has been a St. Paul usher for 39 years. A machinist by trade, he fled Italy in the late 1960s because there was no work. He came to Pittsburgh in 1968 and quickly fell in love with the Steelers.
DeIuliis, 66, has done a bit of everything to make ends meet. He even helped build flight simulators. Two years ago, his wife died of kidney cancer. He couldn't stand the loneliness.
“Every time I turned around, I'd see a memento,” he explained, through a thick Italian accent.
Seeking a distraction, DeIuliis asked if the church needed help. It did. He works joyfully. As he shoveled a 20-foot-long hole for the walkway, his face lit up at the mention of Noll's name.
“He is like the Rooneys (team president Art II sometimes ushers at St. Paul) and like Franco Harris,” DeIuliis said. “Just because Franco was a football player, he never said, ‘I'm a big shot.' ”
After the service, on the cathedral steps, 90-year-old Stella Druga recalled watching Steelers games with her husband and three sisters at home in Carnegie, biting her nails through every quarter.
Though her husband and sisters are gone, Stella carries herself with a certain verve and dignity. She was determined to pay her respects.
“Chuck Noll was stern and fair,” Stella said. “And he didn't put on any airs. He was not a phony.”
No, just an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things.
A man, you might say, who improved the world a little.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.