“Ya can’t get to heaven, unless you go to Cooney’s!”
So they said about Cooney Funeral Home in the old Chicago Irish neighborhood of St. Andrew’s parish just west of Wrigley Field, back in the day.
Eugene “Geno” Cooney was born the eighth of nine kids living above his father’s funeral home on Southport Avenue. With a steady stream of wisecracks, magic tricks, and joyous chortles, he might be the happiest undertaker you’ll ever meet.
Geno didn’t go right into the business at first. “There was no room, all my siblings were in there already. But when those planes hit the building, (9-11), I lost my job in the stock market, so my brothers and cousin asked me to get in the business.”
He was 41 when he enrolled in mortuary school. “I had the prettiest girls in my class, they were all 18, 19, 20 years old, so my attendance was perfect.”
His personality was perfect as well. He has a way about him, and with a degree in public speaking and journalism he was the guy they called on to speak to the bereaved families.
Amid finding himself, he also found the Irish American Heritage Center on the northside of Chicago, the 86,000 square foot dilapidated old building that a group of Irish immigrants from the Shamrock American Club bought and renovated into a home for Irish culture that sits on a full city block with dance halls, classrooms, a 650-seat theatre, and pubs. It’s a jewel in the crown of Chicago’s Irish community.
The Irish American Heritage Center was always crowded when Geno was President. “I was lucky, every Summer Fest I had, the weather was beautiful and every winter I was President, it didn’t snow.”
Cooney was training with the Irish Fire Brigade, carrying a dummy up the stairs when he bumped into family friend Ambrose Kelly, a carpenter who helped remodel the funeral home when Geno was in high school. Kelly was the architect of the Heritage Center renovation and “the smartest man I ever met.”
Kelly recruited the lad to volunteer every Tuesday and Thursday night and all-day Saturdays. “I didn’t have any talent, but broom, shovel, carrying drywall, paint and there was an army of volunteers in the beginning and an army of women in the kitchen. My dad became a “Saint” donor, was given a lifetime membership, and my mother through the years was always a tremendous donor.”
IN AT THE BIRTH
The Cooney family was heavily involved in the birth of the Irish American Heritage Center. “We were always there, my brothers were on the board, we worked all the fests. I got married there in the old gym. We cut the cake right in front there by the stage, two months later she wanted to cut my throat,” he joked.
Sadly, Geno’s wife died in February of 2008. “We were married for 20 years. Her name was Mary. We have one daughter, Caitlin. She allowed me to run for President of the Heritage Center.”
“I remember I was widowed and had nothing going on and I said, ‘Ya’know I think I’m gonna join the board of directors at the Heritage Center’…and they took me down to the bowels of the building in the boiler room and told me to run for president.”
Geno brought the board together in turbulent times for the Heritage Center serving three one-year terms as President in 2015. 2016, and 2017. The Irish American Heritage Center was always crowded when Geno was President. “I was lucky, every Summer Fest I had, the weather was beautiful and every winter I was President, it didn’t snow.”
He and pal Artie Fitzgerald raised ten grand for the library with their show, “Comedy and Crooning”, with Geno telling jokes and Fitz singing Sinatra. “I was Tom Dreesen to his Sinatra.” He also performed a memorable one-man performance of TONIGHT WITH MARK TWAIN and traveled to Ireland to present the Chicago flag to the Westport County Council in Mayo.
SHOW BIZ FUTURE IN DOUBT
“I love entertaining people, but I have no future in show biz, I had to fire my agent. But I had my fun as President.”
The Heritage Center was closed for the pandemic but still paying heating and maintenance bills for the huge facility. It’s a miracle they’re still open, but grants have kept the place going and the future looks great.
Cooney Funeral Home was started by Geno’s grandfather in 1922, now in their 100th year and 4th generation of undertakers as his nephew has just joined them.
“The Irish community is part of my life and my business. It’s my duty to take care of the Irish as we’ve done for the last 100 years.”
Ask anybody who knows Geno and they’ll say, “He’ll be the last guy to let you down.”