The death of former Fresno State football coach Jim Sweeney made me recall the day back in the mid-1980s when I interviewed him about another death: The passing of Bill Sweeney, his father.
I was working at The Kingsburg Recorder. I had heard Jim refer to his father — “a hard-rock miner” — more than once. Fathers are important to sons. I phoned Jim and asked for an interview. He said yes.
I wrote a free-lance story and sold it to The Bee. I don’t think it was ever published, with all the quotes, as I wrote it. Here are some quotes from Jim Sweeney talking about father nearly three decades ago.
* “Everyone called him Bill,” Jim said. “William. William Joseph, I think. I’d have to look it up to be sure.”
* Bill Sweeney was in his mid-60s when he died. The family lived in Butte, Montana. Jim Sweeney was playing football for Irish Christian Brothers High School on that Friday evening in 1946. It was a big playoff game, won by Jim and his teammates.
“When I got home, and we arrived on the bus, we were given the information,” Jim said. “We were looking for a celebration, the band and all, but we didn’t find that. We found a parish priest who gave me the information that my father had died.”
* There were a lot of Irish in Butte.
“There’s a joke among those who came from Ireland and landed in Butte,” Jim said. “They’d put a sign on them when they got on the boat saying, ‘Leave me off in Butte, Montana.’”
* Jim said his father was born around 1880 in Donegal, on the Bay of Donegal in northwestern Ireland. Bill Sweeney’s father (Jim Sweeney’s paternal grandfather) was a tailor. Bill Sweeney learned the trade. “When my father put a patch on your overalls, you’d swear the greatest seamstress in the world did it,” Jim said.
* There was no future in Ireland for Bill Sweeney. “If you want to read a tragedy, read Irish history,” Jim said.
* Bill Sweeney sailed from Ireland at the turn of the century, landing in Canada and making his way by rail and foot to Butte. “Teeming and steaming” is how Jim described the Butte of his father’s youth. Irish, Italians, Chinese, Slavs, all fighting for miners’ jobs. Their goal: Digging out the copper ore buried in Rocky Mountain granite.
“My father came to America looking for opportunity,” Jim said. “Work was opportunity to him. Work was a privilege.”
* Bill Sweeney worked for nearly four decades in the mines, first as a miner, then as a safety inspector. “I never saw my father miss a day of work in his life,” Jim said.
* Hard rock and dynamite were Bill Sweeney’s stock-in-trade. He survived that lethal combination, but not the conditions of a mile under the ground.
“My father died of heart failure and miner’s consumption,” Jim said. “When you work in the mines, you come down with miner’s silicosis and things like that.”
* Bill Sweeney was a union man (United Mine Workers) in an era of often bitter and sometimes deadly labor-management relations throughout the nation.
“He traveled all over the country on union business,” Jim said. “He was a popular man with the miners and he was respected by the officials of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company.”
* Bill Sweeney in his early 20s married Kathryn (I think that’s the spelling — my notes aren’t clear) Mohan of Baltimore. Her parents were Irish immigrants. They had seven children: Dan, Mary, Kevin, Helen, Jean, Bill and Jim.
Bill as an aging man still liked to sing “I’ll Take You Back Again, Kathleen” to wife.
“When he would play that song and sing it to my mother, you’d see two people very much in love,” Jim said.
* Bill Sweeney walked a mile-and-a-half to the mines at the start of each work day, then walked home at night.
“My father would take a decent bucket to work every day,” Jim said. “But I think he left the best at home for the others to eat. He always had something in that bucket that he didn’t eat, whether it was a cupcake or an orange or an apple.”
* Jim as a boy sometimes tried his father’s patience.
“I was kind of an incorrigible kid,” Jim said. “I thought I was the toughest kid in the world. I wasn’t, but I thought I was. My ambition in the seventh grade was to whip everybody in the eighth grade before they got out of the building. When I got into the eighth grade, a nun there changed a lot of my perspective on life. And it was because I was afraid of that nun that I was able to structure sentences and do things at the blackboard that I previously said I couldn’t.
“She terrorized me, sure, but what really terrorized me was that I was afraid she’d call my father. My father never struck me, never ever. But he had a way of clearing his throat. And when he did, he cleared the building. You knew what was right and you knew you’d better do it.”
* Jim described Bill Sweeney as standing about 5-foot-10 with broad shoulders and reddish-brown hair. In his younger days, Bill Sweeney from a standing start could jump atop a fence post.
Bill Sweeney “was a spry man who acted — and was — much younger than his age,” Jim said.
* Bill Sweeney was a singer and a dancer.
“He could sing like you wouldn’t believe,” Jim said. “And he could play the piano. I remember him — when I was a little kid and it was the holidays — with the family a round he would play the violin. He would dance, do the Irish jig, and play the piano. He never took a lesson in his life. I often wonder why I didn’t get any of his abilities.”
* The Catholic Church was a key part of the family’s life.
“The only game my father saw me play was baseball,” Jim said. “One day he saw me make the sign of the cross as I stepped up to bat. When I got home, he asked what in the world I was doing that for. I told him all the players do it — it was a Catholic town.
“He said, ‘God isn’t going to help you hit the baseball. It’s up to you.’
“When my father went to work every day, to go down into the mines a mile deep, he’d make the sign of the cross before he left the house. He felt that was in tune. But he felt a kid playing baseball shouldn’t count on anything but his own grit.”
* Jim said he worked in the mines during the summer when he was in college. But as a kid, Jim said, he played and went to school.
“My father was a very understanding man,” Jim said. “He didn’t put limitations on his kids. He didn’t tell us, ‘Don’t play ball!’ My father saw to it that his children could play. When we were children we didn’t work, we played. And I think that’s the role of the father, to make it so his son can be a boy when he’s supposed to and a young man when’s supposed to. He’s going to work all his life as a man.”
* Bill Sweeney never got football fever — American football, that is.
“He grew up in Ireland, where they play soccer and rugby,” Jim said. “I think he thought football was too rough.”
* But Bill Sweeney loved boxing.
“If there’s anything I remember about my father and sports, it was his love for Joe Louis. When he beat Billy Conn, Joe Louis became the greatest person who ever lived in the eyes of my father. I think that helped me see that the color of a person’s skin didn’t make any difference. Here was my father, an Irish immigrant, who was all of a sudden in love with this man named Joe Louis. I think that was a lesson in itself. He didn’t have to tell me. I saw it.”
* On the day his father died, Jim said, Bill Sweeney was walking home from the mines. Bill Sweeney fell to the ground, got up and made it home. He had a pain in his chest. Call the priest, he told his wife. The priest came. Bill Sweeney died.
There was one more football game for Jim Sweeney and his teammates.
“My father was buried, I believe, on a Wednesday and we played on Saturday,” Jim said. “We were the underdog because the other team was a double A school and we were a single A school. We played our best game of the year and beat them. I felt like I played a great game and my teammates all played a great game.”
* Jim Sweeney grew up.
“When I was a high school coach, and at Montana State, I always had a Dad’s Day,” Jim said. “We would always select the most difficult opponent to play against. Then we’d have the fathers sit on the bench with us and wear a placard with the number of their son on it. It gave the players an opportunity to represent their fathers and make their fathers very proud of them. Those were tremendous times for the players and their dads. It gave me a chance to tell my players how valuable their relationship was with their fathers. I know in my life my father was a tremendous example to me.
“I tell my players to check their bloodlines. ‘You came from across the sea, your grandparents and great-grandparents. Only the very strongest people from other countries could make that voyage. You are the best of what other nations could give this country and you have a responsibility to develop your full potential.’
“I believe that about my own bloodlines because I believe that about my father.”