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Letter From America.

O'Donnell Irish EyesO'Donnell Irish EyesWhen the Valentine’s Day candy is slashed to half price, department-store window displays are denuded of red items and replaced with green, when I start reading about St. Paddy’s Day parties, and start seeing shamrocks in my dreams, my thoughts turn to my maternal grandfather, James Edward Rooney. 

I do think about him occasionally throughout the year, but it is in the days preceding and weeks following that one day on which the whole world is Irish that my memories of this unusual man are most vivid.  Born in 1890 in Elka Park, a small community in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Jim Rooney was the tenth and youngest child in his family, his oldest brother nearly 20 years his senior.  Shortly after Jim’s birth, the family moved to the Yorkville section of Manhattan, where the older children had more opportunities to earn enough money to support their newly widowed mother and youngest of siblings.  By the time he was old enough to talk; family members realized that Jim was a gifted child.  By merely listening to the various languages he heard in his new surroundings, he picked up enough to converse fluently with many of his Manhattan neighbors.  His ear for language was not his only gift, however.  It was soon obvious that he could sing and dance; moreover, he was not a bit shy about performing for any audience.

Once enrolled in his local parochial elementary school, the nuns and priests who taught him also became aware of his talent.  Although he never had a formal voice lesson in his life, Jim was soon singing in the church choir, where he learned to read music almost as effortlessly as he learned to read from his primary-school textbooks.  A good student in all subjects, Jim’s teachers encouraged his mother to continue his education beyond the eighth grade, the point at which most boys in his socioeconomic class left school to go to work.  Scrimping and saving were part and parcel of my great-grandmother’s existence; what savings she had (and with the ongoing assistance of her older children), Jim’s mother took that advice and enrolled him in Fordham Prep (the Bronx-based preparatory school of the Jesuit-run Fordham College), where he flourished.  By his senior year, his voice having changed from boy soprano to full-fledged tenor, Jim had earned a reputation as a singer-for-hire.  He was in great demand for New York weddings, funerals, and all manner of respectable entertainment in between.  (Indeed, in his later years, he told me that he had sung at one time or another in every single Catholic Church in Manhattan.  I believed him then and have no reason to doubt that claim to this day.)

In World War I, Jim enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where his aptitude for language served him well.  He was made a Spanish interpreter (even though that was not the foreign language he knew best at that time) but also pitched in whenever an interpreter was needed for native Italian, German, and even Greek speakers.

The end of the war brought the Spanish influenza epidemic to New York, and Jim fell victim to this killer disease.  Although he obviously survived, it had a lifelong effect on his health.  By the time he was thirty years of age, he experienced periodic flare-ups of profoundly debilitating depression, often resulting in months of hospitalization.  He was also diagnosed at that time with a variant of Parkinson’s disease—now a known sequela of that particular strain of flu—which he battled for the rest of his life.


Between bouts of illness, Jim prospered financially, and eventually moved his young family to the very house on Long Island in which I live at present.  He loved that house and entertained there often and exuberantly, sometimes to the understandable consternation of my grandmother.  For example, one early Saturday afternoon in July of 1960, while driving from Manhattan out to his Manhasset, Long Island home, he spotted a disabled rust bucket of a vehicle at the side of the road.  A large family—how they all squeezed themselves into that car being the first thing that came to my grandfather’s mind—had exited the automobile and were milling about, looking very unhappy.  One of the men flagged my grandfather down and he readily pulled over.  In halting English, the man asked for help.  The minute my grandfather heard the accent, he responded in, from what I remember, Greek.  Quickly ascertaining the plight of the man, who had planned for months this day trip for his extended family to Jones Beach, my granddad invited them to his own house.  In two trips, he ferried the family and all of their picnic baskets and beach paraphernalia in his car to Garden Turn, Manhasset, where he then telephoned his own mechanic to have the disabled car towed for repair.  While waiting for the return of their car, the family was invited to fire up the backyard barbecue grill, make full use of the indoor “facilities,” and were treated to an afternoon with gregarious Jim (while my grandmother carried glasses of iced beverages out to the group and empties back into the kitchen), and we children conversed awkwardly but played as happily as children do.  The car was finally delivered at about the time we were ready for our own dinner, whereupon my grandfather shrugged off the Greek man’s evident confusion when the repair bill seemed so small.  Yes, you guessed it:  Jim had paid the lion’s share of that bill and instructed the mechanic to present to the visiting family a bill with a ludicrously low bottom line.

The acts of kindness Jim showed his fellow man are too numerous to recount here, and many occurred before I was born.  Probably the most unbelievable (but true) example of his character occurred waaaaaay before I made my debut into this world.  During the Great Depression, Jim was visiting a client in Manhattan; immediately afterward, right out on the street, he ran into a young Irish woman whom he knew through another client.  She told him that her employer (for whom she had worked as a maid) had gone bankrupt; she was out of a job and homeless.  “Mr. Rooney, I haven’t eaten in three days!” she told him.  Jim brought her to his own home, where she remained until she found another job.  Now, that sounds—well—“nice,” but, y’know, “big whoop.”  What you have to understand, however, is that Jim and my grandmother Katharine (who, while unusual at the time, worked outside the home, too) already had a live-in housekeeper to cook and care for their two daughters.  It was in this way that the small Rooney family ended up with two maids, each paid the prevailing wages, until the Irish woman who had been literally rescued from starvation found another position—no easy feat during the Depression.

Nobody is perfect, and my grandfather was no exception to that rule—I think he lost his temper with me once!—but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with the same combination of God-given gifts that he was given, developed fully, and used throughout his life to the benefit of so many.

Come July, I’ll start to wonder if the little Greek girl who was about my age at the time of her family’s ill-fated excursion to Jones Beach ever thinks about me or about the man who so effortlessly drew her family into his generous embrace.  I do know that I’ll think of her, and, of course, recall memories of my granddad once again.

By Cara Sheridan O’Donnell

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