Rooney changing lives at helm of Folds of Honor
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
OWASSO, Okla. – The silence of a warm, tranquil spring evening at the newly minted Patriot Golf Club near Tulsa is pierced by the pulsating stereo vibrations of “My Maria” wafting loudly from a customized golf cart next to the 16th green.
Beneath the poignant backdrop of an American flag, the sharp acoustic guitar chords and melodic vocals of Brooks & Dunn drift into the still air of the valley. The cart’s owner, Maj. Dan Rooney – part-time PGA professional, part-time Oklahoma Air National Guard F-16 fighter pilot, full-time humanitarian – stands nearby over an 8-foot putt for eagle as the music blares.
“I’m a lonely dreamer on a highway in the skies.”
Wondering if he makes the putt? Obviously you haven’t met Major Dan.
• • •
You know how gifted golfers are fortunate enough, on those rarest occasions, to find the zone? Maybe shoot 59? That’s where Rooney is in his life right now. In the zone. The self-described “small-town guy from Okie” has a lovely wife, four beautiful young daughters, is a PGA of America pro who can drive it out there with Rickie Fowler, owns and operates a few golf courses and flies F-16s in his “spare time.”
“I’m so blessed,” said Rooney. He’s even writing an autobiography.
Every time he’s pushing Mach 2, soaring through clouds at some 1,600 mph, he pinches himself. Up there, he’s a young boy again, the plane his magic carpet.
Rooney, 37, has flown three tours in Iraq, and now he’s piloting his most important mission: He is at the helm of the Folds of Honor Foundation, trying to ensure no fallen soldier, nor any fallen soldier’s family, is left behind on the field of battle. It’s a massive, sometimes overwhelming task. In less than three years, using Patriot Golf Day as its fundraising vehicle, the Folds of Honor Foundation that Rooney founded – named for the 13 folds that transform a flag into a triangle – has raised more than $5.3 million and provided college scholarships for more than 1,400 children of troops killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these children’s pictures dot the refrigerator in Rooney’s home.
“We’re changing lives,” Rooney said. “That’s so powerful.”
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Rooney’s latest flying vessel doesn’t have wings. It’s his Patriot Golf Club, which he built with his father, John Rooney, a professor emeritus at Oklahoma State University. The Rooneys also own a club in Michigan named Grand Haven. It was on Dan’s way there on United Flight 644 late one night in 2006 that he sat in seat 24A and cried as he watched Army Cpl. Brock Bucklin brought home one final time to his grieving family. On the tarmac that night was Bucklin’s then-4-year-old son, Jacob. The flight’s captain asked passengers to wait onboard as the flag-draped coffin was carried off. Half the passengers exited anyway.
Rooney found his life’s calling that night. What if that were him? He was determined to find a way to make sure young Jacob and others like him had the opportunity to pursue their dreams through higher education – something to “undo” a little suffering. He also would find a way to reach those people who departed that plane. His mantra: Freedom isn’t free.
The Patriot is more than a golf course. It features 18 holes and a palpable spirit, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and his team and officially christened on Memorial Day with the inaugural Patriot Cup. The course begins with a breathtaking opening tee shot to a fairway deck some 140 feet below. An American flag flies to one’s left; the Tulsa skyline sits off in the distance.
“It sure doesn’t look like Oklahoma,” said 2004 British Open champion Todd Hamilton, on hand for the Patriot Cup. “This morning, when I walked around the back of the clubhouse and saw that flag flying at half-mast, wow . . . it really hit home what today was all about.”
“The golf course is a great story,” added Kevin Dukes, a Tulsa knee surgeon and golf partner of Major Dan’s. “But the story behind the course? Even better.”
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Twenty-five PGA Tour, Champions and LPGA pros showed up for the first Patriot Cup pro-am event, which was unique in format. Each group included a tour pro, three amateurs and a military member. Before play, Jones and his wife read a moving poem he wrote set to music – a mother’s heartfelt farewell to a son who died young in battle. Golf has experienced great changes through the years, but the pain of war has changed little.
The Patriot is billed as “great golf for the greater good.” Part of its proceeds benefit the Folds of Honor, which has its foundation headquarters on site. It’s no coincidence that Rooney chose Memorial Day to launch.
“This isn’t a holiday,” he said. “It’s not a day to take the family to the lake. We’re here to honor the fallen, and to remember the great sacrifices that they have made.”
At 1300 hours each day (1 p.m.), everything at The Patriot stops, and a bell atop the Folds of Honor tower rings out 13 times. “Chilling,” PGA Tour veteran Brad Faxon said. “It was tearful. You forget how good we all have it. I know that sounds sappy, but it’s not. It’s real.”
At a black-tie gala later that night at Tulsa’s Hard Rock Casino, the tables that fill a ballroom have Kleenex next to the flower centerpieces. Ginger Gilbert Ravella addresses the room and speaks emotionally and eloquently about the heroics of her late husband, Air Force Maj. Troy Gilbert, an F-16 pilot whose final act of bravery in 2006 helped save the lives of 22 special-ops troops in Iraq. Gilbert perished on his mission, leaving behind five children, including 9-month-old twins. The Folds of Honor stepped up with scholarships for all five children. “It makes a huge impact for their future,” Ginger said.
“We are reminded we are not alone.”
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Rooney begins Memorial Day by looking into the faces of his friends and invited guests and beams, “It’s a great morning to be an American, isn’t it?” A greater patriot you will not find; his dreams run in Technicolor red, white and blue. The holes of The Patriot are named after great Americans, from Abraham Lincoln and George Washington to the Wright Brothers and Grand Slam winner Bobby Jones. The sweeping, difficult dogleg 18th hole is named for Dwight
D. Eisenhower. “My favorite patriot of all,” Rooney said.
Young Jacob, the son of the Army corporal whose coffin Rooney watched being removed from that plane in Grand Rapids years back, is growing up, and he and Rooney have developed
a special relationship. “Jacob just turned 8, the same age as my oldest daughter,” Rooney said, “and he’s a really neat little boy. What a cool bond I have with him. I think we were brought together for a reason.”
Rooney has a special coin he earned after completing his pilot’s training years ago. It is always in his pocket, and has accompanied him on combat missions. The night of the first Patriot Cup gala, he gave it to Jacob as a gift.
“A reminder to him,” he said, “that somebody is always thinking of him.”
There are tens of thousands of children just like Jacob, whose moms and dads have made the ultimate sacrifice. If Rooney gets his wish, not one will be left behind. If he were doing it all himself, the task would be too tall. A deeply spiritual man who lives in the realm between fear and faith, Rooney said, “Amazing things are happening; it’s so neat. I really believe there’s a greater force.”
Major Dan smiles. “I’m not the one piloting this plane.”