‘He was the best of us’
One last goodbye for family, friends at Dan Rooney’s funeral Mass
You knew in the first seconds after Rhian Kenny drew that flute to her lips in the choir loft of St. Paul’s Cathedral that no one was getting out with a dry eye. It was that Pittsburgh Symphony musician’s singular timbre, haunting and still pointedly definitive, that provided the heart-wrenching soundtrack of Mass of Christian Burial and the last goodbyes for Daniel M. Rooney on Tuesday in Oakland, a seismic affair that drew a massive police presence, the 44th president of the United States, a raft of NFL Hall of Famers, the full roster of Rooney progeny, dignitaries from every corner of the local and national culture, and a host of neighborhood habitués.
In no particular order, as Mr. Rooney would have it.
But there were raw indicators that the celebration of his life would strain the emotions well before Ms. Kenny’s flute made itself known. Joe Greene, the foundational player Mr. Rooney often cited as the greatest Steeler of them all, was already wiping his eyes 42 minutes before kickoff. Almost as jarringly, an answer turned up to the long-asked query, “Does Mel Blount go anywhere without that cowboy hat?”
Yeah, Dan Rooney’s funeral.
Hatless Mel hugged Chris Noll, son of the late great head coach, and hugged Noll’s widow Marianne, and you could feel their ache even before Barack Obama entered stage left at 10:48 a.m.
Just eight minutes later, with St. Paul’s doors wide open and the sun streaming through the stained glass, Bishop David Zubik welcomed the assemblage and pitched it quickly to longtime Dan Rooney confidant Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington, D.C., who said Mass and delivered an intense, loving homily.
“He was the quintessential Pittsburgher,” the cardinal said. “He was the best of us.”
Cardinal Wuerl recalled putting on a hard hat with Mr. Rooney and walking onto the construction site that would become Heinz Field in 2001, and the excitement that generated among the workers “who would make Dan’s vision reality.”
“‘Mr. Rooney’s here. Mr. Rooney’s here. Mr. Rooney’s here,’ I remember them saying.”
In its perhaps unintended way it was a devastating thing to hear on one of the first days that Mr. Rooney was not.
Cardinal Wuerl spoke admirably about Mr. Rooney’s work with the Ireland Fund, recalling both how fiercely proud he was of his family’s heritage and the educational opportunities he established for children in Ireland, Protestant and Catholic alike, “children of long-standing conflict.”
The only formal remarks from Mr. Rooney’s immediate family came from his eldest son, Art Rooney II, and were typically brief, anecdotally funny, and then powerfully poignant. He recalled how on a morning in New York that began with 7:30 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he heard his father’s cell phone ringing as they were in line for Communion.
“He was behind me; I could hear him reaching for it, and then I thought I was going to hear him turning it off, then I hear, ‘Hello.’
“Later I said, ‘Dad I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to take a phone call in line for Communion.’ And as if this made it all right he said, ‘I thought it was the commissioner.’ ”
Art II finished with a perfect choice from the beatitudes, clearly that which most reminded him of his late father.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said, his voice quaking, “for they shall be called the children of God.”
So with nothing left to be said and presumably to be felt, the family walked and the casket rolled slowly toward Fifth Avenue as Rhian Kenny took up the flute again for “Danny Boy” and steered it slowly and impeccably to its emotional apex.
There are plenty of keys in which to deliver “Danny Boy,” but commonly the highest note is an A above middle C, a substantial leap that in the wrong hands can be treacherous. You can’t jump up and yank that note off the ceiling. You’ve got to rise to it with a clear confidence: ‘Tis I’ll be HERE, in sunshine or in shadow …
In those last moments the clarity of Ms. Kenny’s tone paralleled the easy ascendance of Daniel M. Rooney, from everyman North Sider to citizen of the world, father, footballer, friend to us all, the best new arrival in what Cardinal Wuerl called the great and everlasting end zone.
“He was behind me; I could hear him reaching for it, and then I thought I was going to hear him turning it off, then I hear, ‘Hello.’ Later I said, ‘Dad, I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to take a phone call in line for Communion.’ And as if this made it all right he said, ‘I thought it was the commissioner.’ ” — Art Rooney II