James E. Rooney
November 9, 2006
1 hour, 30 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
James (“Jim”) E. Rooney (b. 1967 Pittsburgh, PA) is the son of Daniel M. and Patricia Rooney (b. 1932), and the grandson of Arthur J. (1901–1988) and Kathleen Rooney (d. 1982). Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team in the Eastern division of the National Football League (NFL), in July of 1933 and turned its operations over to Dan Rooney in 1975 when Jim was eight years old. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the “Team of the Decade” during the 1970s, winning four Super Bowls (NFL Championships) in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979. Jim Rooney grew up in his grandfather’s house on North Lincoln Avenue on the North Side of Pittsburgh, not far from Three Rivers Stadium where, for most of his life, the Steelers played and the family business played out. In February 2006 the Pittsburgh Steelers, under the leadership of Jim’s oldest brother, Art Rooney II, won their fifth Super Bowl championship.
Fourth generation Irish on his mother’s side and second on the Reagan side, Jim Rooney grew up in a Catholic family that emphasized tradition and loyalty. By the time Jim was born in 1967, Daniel M. Rooney had achieved both success and prosperity in various sporting ventures and was able to give his nine children a very affluent standard of living. This was tempered, however, by the very pragmatic outlook of Jim’s mother, the daughter of immigrants from County Mayo, Ireland who had emigrated to Pittsburgh in the early 1920s. The Rooneys were members of St. Peter’s parish on the North Side, but Jim attended St. Bernard elementary school in Mt. Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb, and later Gilmour Academy near Cleveland, Ohio. He chose to break with family tradition, going to Boston College instead of Duquesne University, graduating with a degree in political science and communications in 1989.
After college, Jim Rooney was active in local Pittsburgh affairs including the city’s 1991 Childhood Lead Prevention Effectiveness study and its Planning Commission (1993–1996). He went to Belfast, Northern Ireland in the late 1990s to assist his father’s work with the American Ireland Fund. (1) In 2001, he ran unsuccessfully for the Pennsylvania State Senate as a Democrat. At the time of this interview, Jim Rooney had been involved with the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence in the Katz Graduate School of Business for five years and was director of its FirstLink center.(2)
Married to Stephanie Blacksley, Jim Rooney is raising three children in a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Excerpt No. 1
Dan Rooney’s influenceDisc 1, 43:45–45:16
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
JR: My father is absolutely my biggest influence as an adult. And he is a unique individual – not that all individuals aren’t – but he just has this amazing blend of, sort of, what my grandfather used on horses and with people: he knows what’s coming ten minutes before everyone else does. The football analogy is “you see the field.” He sees the business field better than anyone else I have ever seen in my life and he has been very successful because of that, and he really gets – and he got that I sort of needed to go out and try these goofy businesses that weren’t going to make it but – that I needed something meaningful to be involved in – not that those weren’t meaningful – but [in] something that there was going to be success in, but that it was compartmentalized. That the activity had its duration and that I could go support and participate within that, then get out; that if he said, “I’m hiring you and you are going to go do this for the next five years,” I wouldn’t have done it. And so certainly he did that as a good father; and he is an excellent father and excellent role model for an adult.
Excerpt No. 2
Patricia Reagan Rooney’s influenceDisc 1, 06:18–07:45
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
JR: I think the other things, that she influenced me with, were a real strong sense of compassion – a sense of being concerned for others. She really came from a situation were she had very, very little. We were – my family’s business – my father’s family business – had really taken off by the time I was born and throughout the 70’s and were – sort of had gone from, in the thirty year span of her life, had gone from a father [Martin Reagan] who was probably unemployed as a construction worker most of her life to a situation were fortune was really growing. I think it was an odd experience for her, probably more so than me. But one thing she was very, very adamant about was making sure that whatever fortunate circumstances we had, that we used them to show compassion, show concern, provide some sort of return to the community, because so much had been given to both to her family and to my grandfather’s family, [and] my father’s family.
Excerpt No. 3
On being Irish AmericanDisc 2, 18:03–21:00
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
JR: It’s the culture. It, to me, is a culture that has, you know, almost needs struggle – that melancholy flavor, for lack of a better word, seems to be essential because we really understand feelings and emotions well. I think that grief and loss and those types of things, as well as pure joy – which is easier to achieve when your emotions are raw – I think that there is a real affinity to that for the Irish, that they are in touch with their emotions because of thousands of years of struggle and trying to overcome [them], and that’s why I actually think the Irish-American experience is so important.
I’ll talk about my grandfather [Arthur J. Rooney] tonight,(3) and this was the first time the individual had the opportunity to overcome that experience. And in some ways many did, and in some ways many didn’t, and in some ways those who did – and, you know, definitely the question you are asking me in its root – how do I maintain that same sense of importance and spirit and community? – is absolutely a challenge as an American with less and less Irish influence in me. So that’s a challenge; on the other hand, one thing I have learned is that the Irish experience is universal, but the way they dealt with it is special. And I like that. But their experience isn’t that unique – and struggle and overcoming struggle is essential – but what are your values? What is important to you? If you do that, and I really think it is important – and I think that they are really important questions for America to be asking itself – because you are going to have challenges, even in success, if nothing else, to hold those values. So I think that I really appreciate that the Irish have come and contributed so much to that, because it is a thing we all as Americans have faced.
- Amanda Snatchko (AS)
- Marion R. Casey (MC)
- Jim Rooney, 9 November 2006. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
- The American Ireland Fund was established in 1976 by Daniel Rooney and Dr. Anthony J.F. O’Reilly as a charitable foundation to support Ireland and its people. See http://www.irlfunds.org/aif/.
- FirstLink supports the transfer of Department of Defense first responder technologies to the commercial marketplace. See http://ieefirstlink.com/html/about.asp.
- This interview took place before Jim Rooney was scheduled to talk about his family and the Steelers tradition as part of Ireland House’s Fall 2006 Calendar of Events.