Steelers' Rooney remembered fondly by his beloved North Side
On his first trip back to Pittsburgh in 2009 while serving as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney deplaned and headed for the North Side.
First stop: Legends of the North Shore, a favorite eatery on East North Avenue located a short drive from Rooney's Lincoln Avenue home.
“It was a nice compliment,” Legends owner Dan Bartow said. “We are local, the North Side, and that is what he enjoyed.”
Rooney was North Side through and through. He was born there, raised there and moved back into the regal brick family home after his father, Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr., passed away in 1988.
So it stood to reason when Dan Rooney died Thursday at 84 from natural causes, the restaurant where he ate so many pasta dinners would be asked to cater the family meal.
“It was humbling,” Bartow said.
On Friday, neighbors and friends fondly remembered Rooney not as the iconic Steelers owner who presided over six Super Bowl championships but as a North Sider, as someone at ease taking a quiet stroll down Lincoln Avenue on a cool summer night toward West Park, walking hand in hand with his wife, Patricia.
“He was one of the nicest people I knew in the neighborhood,” said Jim Wallace, sitting on his porch swing on Lincoln Avenue about a block from the Rooney residence. “He was a friendly guy to have around.”
At Heinz Field, the American flag flew at half-staff. At the statue of Art Rooney Sr., a bouquet of flowers was placed in the family patriach's bronze arms and a set of black-and-gold beads dangled from the fingers. Another bouquet and greeting card sat at the foot of the statue.
A pooch punt away on Lincoln Avenue, life continued as normal. Neighbors walked dogs down the street located in the Allegheny West section of the North Side. A car parked near the Rooney house had a watchman inside making sure fans and media did not intrude on the family's privacy.
Lincoln Avenue, with a view of his football team's home when he opened the front door, was where Rooney took regular walks.
Short in distance, Rooney's strolls were lengthy in time because of his knack for stopping to chat with neighbors. A porch across from Wallace's house is a popular gathering spot, he said, and Dan and Patricia would join in on the conversation.
“It's a big loss,” said George Whitmer, another Lincoln Avenue resident. “He was involved in so many different things around here.”
Rooney was so proud of his neighborhood that, earlier this decade, he co-authored a book with local historian Carol Peterson titled, “Allegheny City: A History of Pittsburgh's North Side.” Rooney was deeply involved in efforts to preserve the North Side's history, neighbors said.
“It was a positive sign when he moved back into the neighborhood,” Whitmer said.
One of Rooney's regular stops was Gus and YiaYia's, the popular shaved ice and popcorn stand along West Park. Rooney and owner Gus Kalaris, 85, grew up together and were lifelong friends.
“He would sit with the kids on the park bench and wave at me to say keep it coming,” said Kalaris, noting Rooney would keep paying until every kid had a treat.
Rooney, the former Ambassador and friend to President Barack Obama, was known to invite the regular folks, like Kalaris, to his annual Christmas party. Once, Kalaris invited Rooney to his party, and Rooney obliged.
The walks to the park were limited in recent years as Rooney's health deteriorated, and Kalaris would drive the Ambassador back to Lincoln Avenue. When Stella Kalaris died in October, Rooney paid his respects. It was the final time Kalaris saw his dear friend.
“He sat with me for a half hour, and we just talked,” Kalaris said.
A collage of old-time Steelers players adorns a wall at Legends. In the back, a photo of “The Chief,” Art Rooney Sr., hangs on another wall.
There are no photos of Dan.
“That was just the way he liked it,” Bartow said. “He preferred to see his dad and his players when he looked around.”
Rooney's tastes varied. Bartow said he enjoyed the veal and peppers, with a side of pasta. Kalaris said Rooney was fond of the gnocchi.
He usually had the same request for Bartow.
“He didn't want too big of a portion.”