Were someone to write Maj. Dan Rooney’s job description, it would go something like this:
He is a founding member/owner of The Patriot Golf Club in Owasso, Okla., a club he created 10 years ago.
A veteran of three tours in Iraq, where he flew F-16s, he is an aggressor pilot in the Air Force Reserves, spending one week a month based at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida (think Viper in the movie Top Gun, the instructor who puts other pilots through their combat paces).
He also is the heart and soul behind Folds of Honor, an organization he created to fund scholarships for spouses and children of military personnel killed or seriously injured in the line of duty, a calling that has raised more than $130 million since Rooney launched it in his garage 12 years ago.
Rooney, 46, who will become Col. Dan Rooney on Oct. 1, is the world’s only PGA professional/F-16 pilot, a distinction he wears proudly.
“I’ve never met a fighter pilot whose wires aren’t a little crossed,” Rooney said.
Those wires cross in service to others, the driving force behind seemingly everything Rooney does.
“There is a magnetism to Dan,” said former PGA of America president Brian Whitcomb, who now serves on the Folds of Honor board of directors. “He’s contagious with his passion. You want to climb on board. He’s like that great coach you may have had who you’d run through a wall for. He’s that guy.”
It was through golf that Rooney found a way to fulfill his desire to help the families of servicemen and it has blossomed into one of the most successful initiatives of its kind, highlighted by Patriot Golf Day each Labor Day weekend, when courses around the country host fundraising tournaments.
Rooney learned the game from his father, a university professor, and was good enough to play collegiately at the University of Kansas and qualify for the 1995 U.S. Amateur. Understanding he wasn’t good enough to play professionally, Rooney’s passion was to become a fighter pilot instead.
Golf, though, remained central to Rooney’s life. Through his Kansas ties, he and Gary Woodland, a fellow Jayhawk alum and future U.S. Open champion, became friends. Across the years, their relationship has deepened to the point that Rooney, who is also an ordained minister, presided over Woodland’s wedding to his wife, Gabby, three years ago.
“He’s been a huge part of my life,” said Woodland, who has worn the Folds of Honor logo for a decade without accepting any payment. “He’s someone I can call on for life experiences. It’s nice to put things in perspective.
“My wife was in law school and hated it. We’ve all told her to get out and he’s the one that she sat down and talked to. He’s somebody we can both rely on from a life standpoint, having been there, done that. It’s nice to have that in your corner.”
It was Rooney’s call to duty that stirred him to create Folds of Honor.
He was on a plane returning home to Oklahoma after his second tour of duty in Iraq and the passengers were asked to remain on board while the casket bearing the remains of Cpl. Brock Bucklin, who was killed in combat, were taken from the plane.
Bucklin’s twin brother, Brad, had made the trip home with his brother and Rooney thought of Brock Bucklin’s 4-year-old son Jacob, who had lost a father.
“His little boy didn’t understand he’d never play catch or grab an ice cream with his dad,” Rooney said. “I felt a calling.
“I had no idea what I’d do. It was the beauty of reckless faith. The only way I could think to do it was through golf.”
Searching for a path forward, Rooney called Whitcomb, who was president of the PGA of America at the time. Whitcomb was accustomed to receiving calls from across the golf landscape and when he returned Rooney’s call, he was struck by Rooney’s passion and commitment.
“I was a one-man show,” said Rooney, who started the 501(c)(3) organization in a tiny office above his garage in Broken Arrow, Okla. “There were moments when I was going to throw in the towel but Brian said, ‘No, I’ll get you through this.’
“They always say an airplane takes off into the wind for a reason. You need wind to give it lift.”
With help from Joe Steranka, then the PGA of America CEO, Whitcomb and Rooney put together the first Folds of Honor fundraiser in Grand Rapids, Mich., bringing in $7,000.
The PGA Championship was heading to Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., later in 2007, not far from Rooney’s home. Whitcomb borrowed from the model of National Golf Day, another nationwide fundraiser, and the first Patriot Golf Day was created, raising $1.1 million.
“We thought we’d hit it completely out of the park, exceeding anything we thought might be possible,” Whitcomb said.
In fact, Folds of Honor was just getting started.
It raised approximately $33 million in the most recent fiscal year with 86 percent of its annual expenses supporting its scholarship program.
This year, Folds of Honor handed out approximately $25 million in scholarships with nearly 5,000 military dependents attending school in all 50 states.
“It’s names, it’s schools, it’s stories,” Rooney said.
It’s also Rooney, who is thrilled that Jacob Bucklin, who was the first recipient of a Folds of Honor donation, will attend college next year.
“He’s true to his mission,” Whitcomb said of Rooney.
At Patriot Golf Club, where Folds of Honor is based, everything stops at 1300 hours each day. Taps is played across the golf course and a bell tolls 13 times, representing the 13 folds in American flags given to family members of fallen military personnel.
“We remember freedom isn’t free,” Rooney said.
On Labor Day weekend, more than 5,000 golf courses participated in Folds of Honor fundraisers, raising approximately $9 million with, as Rooney put it, a lot of people giving a little bit.
“Everybody gets the satisfaction because you’re part of something bigger than yourself,” Rooney said.
“I’m convinced there is a higher power in control of all of this. When you are on the right path and you work hard, our universe conspires for you. I see God’s hand in this every day.
“One guy trying to make a difference, we all share a common ground in that walk. When you combine that with the mission of Folds focused around military families and education, it resonates with so many people.
“We are so divided between red and blue. Folds is red, white and blue.”
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