Rooney remembered as a caring, humble big shot
They met him only once, but Dan Rooney made an indelible impression on the Wellen family of Pittsburgh's Carrick neighborhood.
Excited and a bit starstruck to see the iconic Steelers owner mingling with fans at South Hills Village a few years ago, Matt and Cassie Wellen recalled how quickly Rooney put them at ease with his kind words and gentle, humble demeanor.
Rooney seemed less like one of the most influential team owners in American sports and more like a friendly fellow yinzer as he introduced himself, made time for plenty of photos and signed copies of the book he co-authored with a local historian, "Allegheny City: A History of Pittsburgh's North Side."
"He was just a down-to-earth guy," said Matt Wellen, who joined his wife and two children, ages 9 and 10, at a Mass on Sunday morning dedicated to Rooney's memory . "He wasn't fancy. He was a big shot, but he didn't act like that."
Several hundred people — from fans like the Wellens to Rooney's family and former colleagues — gathered at the Basilica at St. Vincent College in Latrobe for the commemorative church service, which was held on the third day of the Steelers' training camp at the college. Women and children participated in football drills at fan training camps led by active and retired Steelers a few hundred yards away.
"It's a beautiful day, and it was great to have everybody join us for Mass and remember my dad," said Dan Rooney's son, Steelers President Art Rooney II, who delivered the first reading of scripture, followed by a second reading from Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert.
"I was lucky to have him for so many years of my life. He had a great sense of humor, and he always kept everybody loose, had a lot of love. And he kept his humility, that's for sure," said Art Rooney II.
This summer marks the 52nd consecutive year the Steelers are training at St. Vincent, and it is the first without Daniel Milton Rooney, the late Steelers chairman and former U.S. ambassador who died April 13 at 84.
"So, as we begin this 2017 Steelers' season, let us turn not to what we miss about Ambassador Rooney, but let us ask the question why we miss him," said the Rev. Paul Taylor, the monk who serves as St. Vincent College's executive vice president, during his homily."
The priest touched on several of Dan Rooney's achievements and causes outside the NFL, including serving as the Obama administration's ambassador to Ireland from 2009 to 2012, preserving and publicizing Pittsburgh's historical significance and making a daily effort to get to know his neighbors in the North Side .
He often could be seen stopping to chat several times during walks along Lincoln Avenue on cool summer nights while clutching the hand of his wife, Patricia.
"Here's this larger-than-life character of Dan Rooney, and he's walking through the North Side with his friends and his neighbors," Taylor said. "He did have great humility, and that humility came because he loved people."
Dan Rooney "brought people from all over the world to the North Side, to Heinz Field and to the Steelers nation," Taylor continued, "and his kind words and true friendship opened his neighbors and friends to the modern world around them."
Jim Laughlin, 74, a cousin of Dan Rooney, said "Dan was someone you won't ever forget" but also "just like any other cousin" in terms of his easygoing nature and love of simple joys like tossing the football with his siblings.
"When Dan made his mind up to do something, he did it," said another cousin, Art Laughlin, 68. "I think the NFL is a tribute to him. There's just so many things that he was instrumental in getting done."
As an example, he cited the Rooney Rule , the NFL policy that requires league teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs.
During the homily, Taylor said that those who knew and worked alongside Rooney shared a common experience: "Just when we thought we knew the answer (to a pressing problem), Daniel Rooney made the question bigger, and our answer was not sufficient."
"Some may call it thinking outside the box, and it is, but I propose that it is thinking and acting with an understanding heart," said Taylor, challenging attendees to come up with more complex, meaningful solutions to issues confronting society.
Former North-Sider Rich Stillwagon, 69, of Unity, a graduate of St. Vincent College, recalled being a St. Vincent student shortly after the Steelers started training there. He praised Dan Rooney not only for his Hall of Fame career presiding over six Super Bowl championships, but also for prioritizing being a good citizen and giving back to his community.
"He brought good will, and he brought a sense of responsibility to everything," said Stillwagon, who brought to Sunday's Mass a pair of friends visiting from Texas. "He was a great leader in that regard."
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.