The Ireland Funds Pittsburgh Gala
Irish eyes were smiling on Friday night when The Ireland Funds Pittsburgh Gala was held at Acrisure Stadium on St. Patrick’s Day.
A sea of green took over the home of the black and gold for the night, as Pittsburgh’s Irish and then some gathered to honor those making a difference in the community in manners that fit with the tradition and values of The Ireland Funds.
The evening was a celebration of all things Irish, with the Stadium’s UPMC Club transformed into an Irish Pub.
“It’s been a great tradition for us to have the dinner on St. Patrick’s Day in Pittsburgh and I am glad we are able to get back to that tradition,” said Steelers President Art Rooney II. “I know a lot of people were looking forward to coming back and being a part of tonight’s gala.
“We are excited to be honoring two great people in Chancellor (Patrick) Gallagher and Curtis Aiken. It’s a fun night.”
The two honorees, University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and former Pitt basketball star Curtis Aiken, now a member of the Pitt basketball broadcast team and a successful minority business owner in Pittsburgh, made the night a combination of green mixed with blue and gold.
“It’s a little bit unusual to have two people we are honoring from the same University,” said Art Rooney II. “It’s a great night for University of Pittsburgh alumni like me.
“Chancellor Gallagher has been a great leader for Pitt and a great leader for our region. We are excited to be able to recognize him in this way. He certainly deserves it. It’s a good way to show him the appreciation the community has for everything he has done.
“Curtis is doing a great job and has become another leader in the community. It’s great to have an African American leader like him involved in so many businesses in town. He is a deserving honoree of the community impact award because he has had a great impact.”
The night kicked off with plenty of Irish entertainment thanks to Donnie Irish Band, Slim’s Irish Band, the Heinz Chapel Choir, and the University of Pittsburgh Irish Dancers. The Pitt hurling team was on hand for demonstrations and Gaelic artist John Webber was providing guests with their names written in Gaelic to take home.
Late Steelers Chairman and former United States Ambassador to Ireland, Daniel Rooney, along with late Pittsburgh businessman Anthony J.F. O’Reilly, created The Ireland Fund in 1976 with the trinity of goals being peace, culture and charity. The organization later merged with the American Irish Foundation, to create the American Ireland Funds, the leading charitable organization benefiting Ireland, which has now become known as The Ireland Funds.
Rooney was a driving force in the success the organization had seen over the years, helping with The Ireland Funds’ mission of promoting programs of peace and reconciliation, arts and culture, education and community development throughout Ireland. During Rooney’s time as United States Ambassador to Ireland he visited every county in Ireland, helping to bring peace between the North and the South, something he took great pride in.
“People recognize that Ireland is better as far as bringing peace,” Dan Rooney said prior to his passing. And that is what he wanted, what he dreamt about, for the country his family immigrated from. He wanted peace.
The organization is one that isn’t just active in Pittsburgh but has nationwide and international support. From New York to San Francisco, and as far reaching as Australia and Japan, as it has reached a total of 12 countries. All a result of Rooney’s passion for helping Ireland.
Jim Rooney, a member of the national board of The Ireland Funds and the son of Dan Rooney, spoke about the work The American Ireland Funds is doing, which includes aiding the people of Ukraine as they endure conflict.
“Carrying on my dad’s legacy means a lot to all of us,” said Jim Rooney. “The Funds have been doing really good work over the last year. We have opened a Ukrainian Relief Fund in response to the humanitarian crisis. Ireland is among the leaders of taking in refugees from Ukraine and there has been a lot of support there. That has been something that is a meaningful legacy of my dad and Tony O’Reilly. It’s a new conflict, but the Funds are doing their core work which is impacting people affected by conflict.
“The Steelers, the NFL, things around the diversity were so important to Dad. But his commitment to Ireland, when he went over there and saw the violence and devastation and troubles it was causing, he was so impacted. Every year he would spend three or four weeks there. He started bringing the rest of us. It became such an important part of our family’s connection. It was important for Dad to have a non-football project. There is nothing he loved more than football, but he would go to Ireland and have such a passion for helping.”
And those who have a passion for helping others were honored at the dinner.
Chancellor Gallagher, who is stepping down from his role this summer, received the Daniel M. Rooney Ambassador’s Award, given to someone who reflects Dan Rooney’s leadership, love of Pittsburgh and contribution to the community.
“It’s an incomparable honor,” said Chancellor Gallagher. “Dan Rooney embodies the very best of Pittsburgh, the United States and Ireland and few can compete with his impact in these areas. To see his many passions—including Ireland, Pittsburgh and the Steelers—integrated into this event is the perfect tribute to Mr. Rooney. And to be considered an ambassador by the Rooney family—especially in Dan Rooney’s name—could not be a larger honor. I am deeply moved by this recognition.”
Gallagher has served as the chancellor since 2014, the 18th in school history. He is responsible for directing one of the nation’s premier public institutions for higher education and research, overseeing a community of nearly 34,000 students at five distinct campuses. He also supports the work of more than 14,000 faculty and staff members who are committed to advancing the University’s legacy of academic excellence, community service and research innovation.
Under Gallagher’s strong leadership, Pitt was named a top public school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
“My time as chancellor is full of highlights,” said Chancellor Gallagher. “Among them: The vital work we did to support our students and faculty by making a Pitt education more valuable and more affordable. Another point of pride is our work to advance Pitt’s role as an anchor for this region. It has been remarkable to see many ways that Pitt has supported our citizens, strengthened our community and created opportunities for the region.
“Pitt is already a remarkable place, but the true impact of a university is if it has made the world a better place through knowledge, education and service. To have this sort of impact, a university can’t be an ivory tower—although we certainly have a beautiful one. Instead, a university must look outward toward the very people and community it serves and be willing to play a leading role in taking on some of the hardest challenges of our time.”
Some of the programs and initiatives Gallagher worked on during his tenure were the Pitt Success Pell Match program, Victory Heights, and also gained city approval for a long-term institutional master plan to guide construction. He also guided the University through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is such a great relationship between Pitt and the Steelers, and our family personally with the University,” said Jim Rooney. “They are one of our strongest partners through Acrisure Stadium. Education is so important to our family and having a great university like that means so much. To have the leadership he provides, it was the right thing to honor him with what we are trying to do with the Funds in the community.”
Aiken, the former Pitt basketball standout and member of the radio broadcast team, was the recipient of the Patricia R. Rooney Community Impact Award, given to a leader who shares the love of community Mrs. Rooney had and who has produced successful organizational initiatives in response to a significant contemporary problem.
“It means an awful lot,” said Aiken, who returned from the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. where Pitt won today to accept the award. “The respect I have for the Rooney family in general, in particular Patricia Rooney and understanding how much she did and meant behind the scenes and what she did in the forefront supporting the community at large. It means the world to me to receive this honor.
“I have heard this several times, and I am living it now, but the best gift that you can give is to be an example of what’s possible. That’s great and I think I have been an example, but I feel obligated to be more than just an example. I feel obligated to be hands on, involved and helping people reach their goals and dreams. When you come from where I come from, humble beginnings and you have some level of success, it’s a natural feeling to want to give back and help others. The root of it comes from my grandmother who instilled that in me. I saw her do that with as little as she had, always wanting to help others.”
Aiken is the founder and CEO of ProTech Compliance, Inc., a certified Minority Business Enterprise which develops revolutionary, customer-driven software solutions.
“Curtis’ career is one of first being a great athlete,” said Jim Rooney. “That gives you a platform in this city like no other. He also has a commitment to helping young black and minority entrepreneurs. Looking at some of his success post-sports as a businessman and trying to help a community that is similar to the work the Funds has done. He is helping make an economic impact in people’s lives. He is so real and genuine. Mom met him a few times and he is doing the work she spent her life advocating for.”
Aiken has also supported a number of area community groups and is working on a new project, Privado 14, through which he wants to create a working and social environment for the next generation of Black business leaders.
“To see someone be successful is so rewarding,” said Aiken. “What motivated me is I read a study about a year ago and it still holds true today, that Pittsburgh has the worst percentage of Black owned businesses than anywhere in the country at one percent. That moved me and motivated me because I am a part of that one percent. I needed to do something to help other Black businesses that are trying to become successful or start a business. I love Pittsburgh. I have been living here 35 years after I graduated. I love Pittsburgh but I think we can do better. Everyone knows diversity is healthy for all of us involved. I want to make sure Blacked owned businesses have a chance here.
“The Rooney family’s core values of promoting diversity should be the norm. they are special people. They have the blueprint for how it should be done. They have been very successful and why not duplicate something that has been successful.”
Teresa Varley, Steelers.com, www.steelers.com/
Photography: Abigail Dean, Karl Roser