Fred Rooney, former Lehigh Valley congressman, dies at 94
Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
Dec. 24--Fred B. Rooney Jr. had a signature farewell for his family and friends.
"Keep the faith," the former Lehigh Valley congressman would say, "and don't vote until you hear from me."
Rooney died Monday at his home in Washington, D.C., his family confirmed. He was 94.
A Democrat, Rooney grew up in Bethlehem and was elected to the Pennsylvania Senate in 1958. In 1963 he won the Lehigh Valley's congressional seat following the death of Francis E. Walter.
Rooney remained in the U.S. House until being defeated in 1978 by Republican Don Ritter, but stayed in Washington with his wife, Evelyn, to raise their three children and join Cassidy & Associates, a private sector consulting firm.
He later established his own consulting business, representing clients such as Conrail, the Association of American Railroads, the American Iron and Steel Industry, and Victaulic Co. of Forks Township.
Rooney's empathy and compassion were contagious, and his willingness to help was endless, nephew and Bethlehem attorney Fred P. Rooney said.
He and his late older brother Leo, a Bethlehem Steel executive, instilled in their children a deep respect for working class families and others struggling to get by, Fred P. Rooney said.
Rooney is survived by his wife, "Evie" Rooney, their children, Timothy, Gregory and Martha Rooney Webb, and seven grandchildren.
Rooney was the son of an Irish-American immigrant, Fred Sr., who met his wife, Veronica, in the Scranton area while he was working as a coal miner. They moved to Bethlehem, where Fred Jr. was born in 1925.
In 1944, after graduating from Bethlehem High School, Rooney joined the U.S. Army and served as a paratrooper in World War II's European theater, stationed in Auxerre, France.
In 1950, with support from the GI Bill, Rooney earned a business degree from the University of Georgia. He started a real estate and insurance business back in Bethlehem and led the Young Democrats of Northampton County before being elected in 1958 to the state Senate.
During his five-year tenure in Harrisburg, Rooney was appointed head of the Interstate Highway Commission. In 1960, he managed John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign efforts in Lehigh Valley. Kennedy visited Moravian College two weeks before his victory over Richard Nixon.
T.J. Rooney, a nephew and former state representative who went on to chair the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said his uncle was nominated to run for Congress in a special election in 1963 upon the death of U.S. Rep. Francis Walter. After winning the special election, he went on to win seven more times.
"They just don't make them like him anymore," T.J. Rooney said. "He made the world a better place."
Both T.J. and Fred P. Rooney, who are brothers, described the congressman as someone who helped constituents.
Fred B. Rooney also had a fun side; he was a "great" gin rummy player who enjoyed golf and would also spend time in the Valley, according to T.J. Rooney.
After winning the special election in 1963, Rooney retained Sanna Baurkot, who had worked for Walter in his Easton office. She said Rooney worked hard to ensure that Lebanese immigrants, many of whom came to the Easton area during the 1950s and '60s, were treated fairly.
"He knew the true meaning of respect: how to give it and how to receive it," Baurkot said. "His constituents would come in and they would have a problem, and you know what his response was? 'Don't worry; don't worry.'"
Rooney was also a "great friend of labor," according to Ed O'Brien, a longtime local leader in the United Steelworkers of America.
"We could always count on Fred," he said. "Anytime you had an issue, he'd make himself available to help. He had our backs."
State Rep. Robert Freeman described the late congressman as a hard-working and well-liked figure in Democratic circles who worked his way up in Washington. Rooney leaned on friendships and connections he made to bring in major names to the Northampton County Democratic Committees annual dinner, landing headline names like former Sens. Walter Mondale and Ted Kennedy.
"He was highly thought of by the Democratic Party in the Lehigh Valley," Freeman said.
By the end of his congressional tenure, Rooney was a high-ranking member of the Transportation Committee with a specialty on railroad issues. Freeman credited Rooney with helping to convince SEPTA to extend service into Bethlehem in the 1970s.
The state Legislature in 2009 renamed Route 378 from Route 22 to the Hill to Hill Bridge the Fred B. Rooney Highway, noting that it was largely due to his actions that the road runs through Bethlehem.
Rooney's nephew Fred said he was particularly proud of his efforts to support the Boys and Girls Club of America and his role in establishing the National Eye Institute at the urging of two St. Luke's Hospital ophthalmologists.
In 1976, he also served as one of the architects of the legislation that created Conrail, a government-funded private company that took over the railroads of bankrupt companies. The subsidies were a Baroint of contention in the 1978 upset loss to Ritter.
Charlie Dent, who represented the 15th District from 2005 to 2018, said Rooney was a charismatic and effective congressman, well-respected on both sides of the aisle. He was also wise enough to seek input from his wife and treat her as an equal, Dent said, and helped his successors when he could.
Nancy Brown Long, his longtime secretary and administrative assistant, said Rooney was an affable boss who treated employees like family members.
"He loved people and always tried to do everything he could for them," she said. "He never said no to anyone."
The Rooney family will hold a service 11 a.m.Jan. 4. at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 1315 N St. NW, Washington.
Reporter Tom Shortell contributed to this article.
Morning Call reporter Andrew Wagaman can be reached at 610-820-6764 or [email protected]
-- Fred Rooney
-- U.S. Congress
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