Tom Kelly: Dan Rooney was a friend to Ireland who epitomised a different era

Dan Rooney, the former United States ambassador to Ireland and Pittsburgh Steelers chairman, died on Friday. Barack Obama said Rooney was as "gracious and generous a person as anyone he had ever known"

ON Good Friday, I learned that Dan Rooney, president of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers had passed away.

A lifelong Republican, he was so impressed by Barack Obama speaking at the Iowa caucuses that he went on to actively campaign for his election.

At the time Obama felt it was more of an honour to be endorsed by the famous NFL chairman.

Later President Obama made Dan Ambassador to Ireland and his appointment went through on a nod by the Senate, receiving support from Republicans and Democrats alike. That was Dan Rooney, a consensus builder.

It was poignant that Dan passed away on Friday as we prepared to celebrate the 90th birthday of my father-in-law, Peter Jackson.

Peter and Dan struck up an unlikely friendship over the past 20 years through the Whitegates Community Centre in Rooney's Meadow, Newry - Dan was its patron and Peter its founding chairman.

Their respective upbringings couldn't have been more different: Dan, the scion of a powerful Irish-American Pittsburgh family and Peter, reared on a tiny farm in south Armagh.

One went on to inherit a huge business empire and the other was forced to leave home and criss-cross oceans to provide for his family.

But despite the gulf in their economic and social backgrounds they shared many similarities.

Both took various jobs to work their way through life; both were industrious and took nothing for granted; they had large families; both celebrated long marriages; both suffered the anguish of the loss of a child; both had a huge interest in sport; and both had a strong sense of philanthropy - Dan with his money and time and Peter with his time and sweat.

Most of all both had a huge love for Ireland, its customs, its culture, its music and, in particular, its people.

President Obama described Dan Rooney as a "model citizen" and as "gracious and generous a person as anyone he had ever known".

The same could be said by anyone who has ever crossed the path of Peter.

Reading the testimonies to Dan Rooney and having witnessed something similar in my father-in-law, I can't help but feel that we are witnessing an era passing as certain values ebb away from modern society.

People like Dan and Peter have lived through not just the recessions that we have known but the Great Depression; the awfulness of the second great world war, the use of atomic bombs, the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the creation of the EU and even the closure of the Irish conflict.

On a more simple level, especially for Peter, the utilities that we now take for granted, like running water, indoor toilets, electric light, central heating and transport, would have not only been unrecognisable to folk of his generation and economic upbringing but also mostly financially inaccessible.

One of father-in-law's remarkable qualities is his memory. He can name neighbours from his childhood.

It's unsurprising because back then his neighbours were mutually dependent on one another. Despite the poverty, children often got fed in the homes of their friends.

Neighbours were the type that looked after one another. They brought in each other's crops. They roofed each other's sheds. Some women in that era were in fact 'community' midwives or nurses.

My aunt often says that her grandmother was the go-to person who the community turned to in death, as she would prepare the body of the deceased. These days, a good neighbour is someone who doesn't bother you.

Dan Rooney, too, epitomised a different era. He didn't do brashness or bling.

One reporter recalled meeting Dan about a year ago and said "there he was with his own tray queuing up with other customers in the Steelers' own public cafeteria".

Somehow one can't see Donald Trump queuing at Mar-a-Lago golf resort for his coffee.

Today it's somewhat different. It is all about parading wealth - whether it's the 50-inch plasma TV or the latest Jimmy Choo shoes.

In Peter and Dan's days it was more make-and-mend rather than throw-away-and-spend, as it is today.

And today, economic background is not the determining factor in the display of wealth, as spending priorities often seem most skewed amongst those who can least afford it.

Hopefully, values like those of Peter and Dan can be passed on like genes but increasingly it is selfishness and not selflessness that models a modern citizen.


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