Jim Rooney, honcho of the State's Convention Centers, likes to work at 'fixing things in the city I love'

To say that James E. Rooney has an appetite for the impossible is to say that Wimpy, the plump, convivial bon vivant in the Popeye cartoon, loves hamburgers. And like Wimpy, Rooney's appetite - in this case for what appears to be beyond reach for most - is not bigger than his stomach. By any measure, Rooney, now the high-flying executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA), has over the last decade endured some of the most formidable challenges of any executive in the public sector.

As MCCA major domo, Rooney oversees four significant public properties - the striking Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC), the largest facility of its kind in the Northeast; the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center in Boston's Back Bay; the 1,350-space Boston Common Parking Garage; and the MassMutual Center in Springfield, which includes a 6,700-seat arena as well as prime convention and meeting space - all with a collective $52 million annual operating budget. And that's just for starters.

Rooney overcame initial stumbles and political fallout from what many perceived as mediocre initial convention bookings at a BCEC that had been designed to put heads in beds to exceed projections at the BCEC and the Hynes, expected this year to attract nearly one million visitors, and generate more than $435 million in economic impact for the Greater Boston area. That's a lot of noggins on mattresses.

Before heading up the MCCA, Rooney was enlisted to salvage construction of the convention center, overcoming a $100 million budget deficit and a six-month delay in schedule. "We completed the project on time," he says with pride, "and came in under budget. The Legislature and the taxpayers gave us an amount of money to spend and we took that seriously. We didn't violate it."

Prior to his rescue mission, Rooney served for two years in Boston City Hall as Mayor Tom Menino's hard-charging chief of staff with responsibility for untying bureaucratic Gordian knots throughout the city. He also served in previous posts as secretary/treasurer and Chief Financial Officer of the embattled Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, as assistant project director at the contentious Central Artery/Tunnel Project, and as a 23-year civil servant at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, serving as interim general manager and deputy general manager of an agency in the news as much any Boston sports team.

Any more windmills to tilt at?

"I guess you could say I've climbed a lot of mountains," says Rooney, 50, from his airy BCEC office. "I get excited about going to work every day, thinking about the future. I like to tell people these jobs find me; I don't go looking for them."

Rooney insists he's staying put now, unless the golden dome falls off the State House or someone stomps on Superman's cape. A curious blend of Harvard-educated visionary and street guy, Rooney is comfortable in his South Boston surroundings, a T-stop or two from where he grew up, one of 11 boys in an Irish Catholic South Boston family on Gates Street, in the shadow of Dorchester Heights. He was once introduced in public as a "unique blend of Southie kid and Harvard scholar."

And that's saying something for someone growing up in Southie in the 60s and 70s when mere survival was an accolade worthy of a college degree. "I remember a US World & News Report in the 1980s - a copy of which is still in my basement - that featured the poorest white neighborhoods in America," Rooney recalls. "The magazine published a map that highlighted a section of South Boston, and there was my street! I never thought or felt that about my home."

No surprise here. Rooney's parents, Fred and Peg, both still employed in their mid-seventies, instilled an Irish work ethic and love of life in the brothers Rooney, however unadorned it was. "We never really wanted for anything, or at least weren't consumed with regrets," he says. "We were never bored. There was always something to do. The neighborhood was filled with big families of seven, eight and twelve kids, all playing pickup stickball, basketball, football and baseball. We didn't need do be entertained or over-organized."

Good that they didn't. Rooney's parents, like many of their day, worked themselves to a nub. Rooney's father, whose ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the 1800s, worked for the family trucking company, Rooney Transportation, in Somerville, driving a truck and working the books until the company was sold during an industry deregulation. Today at 75, he works part-time at the Boston Public Library (BPL), preserving and filing old and new BPL plans in the plan room. His mother, a first generation Irish-American, was a check processor at the old First National Bank processing center in Dorchester and now, also at 75, works at the Legislature's data processing center in Boston. "When I was growing up, my mother worked evenings, came home to get us ready for school, then found time to sleep whenever she could," Rooney recalls, noting that his hard working maternal grandparents, Michael and Belia Corliss, came from County Mayo.

Rooney's maternal grandfather died shortly before he was born and his grandmother moved in with the Rooney family. "She had a great influence on my life, and instilled in all of us, along with my parents, a work ethic, and contributed to any success in all of us," he says. "She would always tell us to 'work hard.'" Rooney's favorite saying to this day, in reference to a long line or a long way to travel, is his grandmother's mantra that "the distance is from here to Bellmulet.'' Rooney later learned that Bellmulet is on the far side of Mayo.

If Bellmulet is on the far side of Mayo, then Harvard is on the distant edge of Southie. After graduating from St. Augustine's Elementary School and Boston Latin, where he played varsity football and ran as a competitive sprinter on the track team ("I don't know if this is quotable, but I was the fastest white kid in Boston, which put me in about third place overall." No offense intended, Jim), the book-smart Rooney was accepted to Harvard as an economics major, an anomaly in that day. "The Herald even wrote a brief about it," he notes.

Rooney is quick to praise his parents for what success he has had as well as the accomplishments of his brothers. "We all benefited from a great deal of positive reinforcement," he says. "We were never braced with failure or let down. My parents always encouraged us to press on, to persevere. It made a lasting impression on us." Rooney says he gleaned from his father, among other traits, a reticence to show gut feelings of emotion. "I probably don't express a lot of what I'm thinking," he says. "I'm like my Dad in that. We're intensely private people, but that's not to mistake there is not a lot going on internally."

Rooney says he inherited from his mother a passion for enterprise. "My mother taught me to respond quickly to circumstances that requite initiative," he adds, "and not to fear the repercussions. That's leadership, she told me, in its basic form."

Today all 11 brothers are successful in their own ways and respond quickly to the moment. Among them, there's Jackie, who operates Rooney Real Estate in South Boston and South Boston Online; Chris, a National Hockey League referee, once the youngest in the NHL; Paul, the owner of an insurance brokerage/employee benefits company; and Michael, who had the Lord's grace to marry an Irish woman, Valerie Sammon, in Raheney, Dublin. The couple now lives in Hingham.

Jim Rooney himself has stayed close to his roots, living today in a single, modest colonial on Mayhew Street in Dorchester with his wife of 25 years, Millie, the daughter of a retired Boston beat cop. The couple has raised three children: Chris, who works for the state trial court; daughter Jaimie, a Northeastern University graduate working for Reebok; and Michael, a sophomore at Northeastern who is majoring in business administration.

Like all the Rooney boys, Jim, second oldest in the family, is a self-starter; close friends would call him a dutiful workaholic. And that would be pretty accurate: Rooney accepted a summer job at the MBTA as a track laborer after his freshmen year at Harvard, and that lasted more than two months. "I couldn't look to my parents to pay tuition," concedes Rooney. "I needed to work, and the MBTA provided me with opportunities over the years that expanded my reach."

It was a broad reach, indeed. Taking a page from his mother's ethic, Rooney worked nights at the T and attended classes during the day through his Harvard years. After a stint at repairing and laying new track, Rooney - with his Harvard smarts and street sense - segued to computer operations, then on to engineering and maintenance, construction supervision, and a nine-month stint as interim General Manager, and later Deputy GM, before heading off to the Central Artery project. There, he admits, he became an "enabler" with a beancounter formula for helping to finance the overextended project through projected Mass Turnpike Authority (MTA) toll increases that guaranteed the toll structure in the state for the next 30 to 40 years. "I did my job," he says bluntly of his chief financial officer duties, "and it enabled elected officials to avoid making tough decisions." In retrospect, Rooney calls the Central Artery project an "engineering marvel of the world," but ultimately an administrative disaster. "There was no owner presence; Bechtel ultimately ran the show, and that was a critical shortcoming." (The deficiency had such an impact on him that Rooney worked out of a construction trailer for 36 months while managing construction of the convention center.)

Success is always in the eye of the beholders, and in 1996 Rooney was promoted from the Central Artery Project to head toll strategist at the Turnpike, with duties to implement his toll enhancement plan that paradoxically would help fund what has been dubbed as one of the most mismanaged public projects in world history. There he caught the watchful eye of Boston's mayor, and soon parachuted into City Hall.

Rooney is a bit of a Teflon man, as disparagements don't seem to stick to him; the credits always prevail, as they should. Asked if he had any regrets looking back, he replies, "I always tried to do the right thing in the context and position that I was in. I'm at peace with myself, and understand what I did and why I did it."

Looking forward, Rooney plans to continue utilizing his mother's initiative, "working to fix things in the city that I love." There is no shortage of challenges, he says. "I feel I'm strategic in getting things done. This is a very political city. There are a lot complicated issues and land mines in getting things done here in the public sector, and in Boston, I know my way around."

Rooney likes to perambulate the city that has so shaped him. He'll never stray too far. Sounding a bit like George Bailey in "It's A Wonderful Life," he remarks, "I can walk around this town and see things I had a hand in making happen. It's pretty fulfilling!"

Who knows, maybe some day he'll even find time to lasso the moon for Millie.

Greg O'Brien is editor and president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/strategy company based in Brewster. The author/editor of several books, he is a regular contributor to regional newspapers and magazines, a political columnist for Boston Metro newspaper and a contributor to New York Metro, Philadelphia Metro and The Providence Journal.