Local United Way President/CEO Bill Jones recalls encounter with Dan Rooney
WILKES-BARRE — You can learn a lot about a person when you sit next to them on an airplane.
Bill Jones, president/CEO of the United Way of Wyoming Valley, had such an experience in December 1997.
Jones learned a lot about a man he described as “a humble, down to earth, kind guy who has worked hard, loved his family and sought to make a difference.”
Jones was talking about Dan Rooney, the iconic owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who died April 13 and who was laid to rest on April 18.
Jones said he was working for PNC Bank, and in December 1997, he was given an opportunity to speak at a conference in Dallas, Texas. After the conference, Jones had to catch a flight and attend two days of meetings in Pittsburgh with his PNC Bank colleagues.
Jones said he got to the gate just as the first-class passengers and preferred travelers were boarding. He knew he had a window seat in the last row of the plane. Jones said he got on right after the first-class travelers and made his way to the back of the plane where he saw a passenger already sitting in the middle seat. The man got up and let Jones in the row to take his window seat.
“As I am buckling my seat belt, the guy in the middle seat wanted to start up a conversation and asked what put me on this flight,” Jones recalled. “I told him about the conference in Dallas and that I was now headed to meetings at PNC in Pittsburgh.”
Jones said the man responded, “That’s our bank.” Jones then shook the man’s hand said, “It’s always good to meet a customer, I’m Bill Jones.”
The man responded, “I’m Dan Rooney.”
Now Jones took a good look at the man, recognizing him, and said, “I’ll be darned, you are.”
Jones first question was to ask Rooney why he was sitting all the way in the back of the plane.
“He told me that he thought first class was overrated,” Jones said. “He said as long as the plane lands safely, it doesn’t matter where you are sitting.”
Jones and Rooney spent the next two hours and 40 minutes talking as if they had known each other all of their lives. Jones said Rooney knew a lot about Luzerne County, and Jones was surprised when Rooney asked if he knew where Swoyersville was. Jones said Rooney told him that legendary Swoyersville football player Lou Michaels had married Rooney’s secretary.
Rooney and Jones talked about how the Steelers were trying to get a multi-county referendum passed to help fund a new stadium at the time.
“I had told him about our vote on the arena, and he just couldn’t get over how close the vote was and that it was defeated, but being built anyway,” Jones said.
“We talked about all kind of things, and he showed me pictures of his family that he had in his wallet and demanded that I showed him a picture of my 1-year-old daughter. I asked him if he would ever allow his daughters to date any of his players. His immediate response was ‘Hell no!”’
Jones said he asked Rooney if his wife was going to have a meal ready for him when he got home. Jones said Rooney’s response was, “My wife is Irish, she doesn’t cook.”
Rooney told Jones he was re-reading Victor Frankel’s book, “In Search of Meaning,” and asked him if he had ever read it. Jones hadn’t read the book, and Rooney gave it a high recommendation, telling Jones that it had even more of an impact on him as he got older.
By now the flight was almost over. Jones said the pilot announced that the temperature in Pittsburgh was 37 degrees. Jones told Rooney when he left the airport in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he knew it would be in the 70s in Dallas. He didn’t even consider the Pittsburgh weather and left his overcoat in his car at the airport.
When they landed, Jones said people came up to Rooney in the airport and wanted his autograph. Jones waited for Rooney, and they walked through the airport together.
Jones was headed to the baggage claim and Rooney said he was going to the parking area. Rooney asked Jones if he had a minute.
Jones had now learned that Rooney was not just a bank customer, but he was on the bank’s board of directors and knew Jones’ boss well.
“Of course, I had another minute,” Jones said. “He took me around the corner and took off his Pittsburgh Steelers jacket and handed it to me. I told him that I wasn’t poor, just wasn’t using my head. I told him that I would just go get a coat in the morning. He insisted pointing out that he owned the team and he could get as many jackets as he wanted.”
Jones said he felt like the kid in the Mean Joe Green Coca Cola commercial. Rooney searched his pockets to make sure he didn’t have anything he needed in them and found his business card, which he autographed for Jones.
When Jones got home he did two things — he bought a 10-by-12-inch marble replica of the Pennsylvania Railroad and sent it to Rooney as a thank you for his very kind gesture. Rooney sent Jones a letter telling him that he opened it up in front of his wife and she thought the initials P.R.R. (Pennsylvania Railroad) stood for Patty Ryan Rooney and that they are displaying it in their home.
The second thing Jones did was buy the book “In Search of Meaning.”
“I still have it,” Jones said. “It still resonates and inspires me.”
Jones said he was sad to hear of Rooney’s passing, calling him an icon in sports and in the city of Pittsburgh.
“In our three-hour interaction. I learned how humble and down to earth he was,” Jones said. “And I learned how he just loved and valued family and had genuine concern for others.”
Since that time in 1997, Jones said he tried to emulate Rooney by always wanted to do good in his community.
“He was such a good man who wanted to do well in every facet of his life,” Jones said.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.