If you ask Hero Fund Investigations Manager Jeffrey Dooley what he likes to do outside of work, he’ll tell you he likes to do what everyone likes to do: He likes to go to the movies, spend time with family, read, swim, and bike. And although Dooley’s pastimes might seem typical, he’s anything but.
An insatiable hunger for knowledge and new experiences guided Dooley across the globe, lengthened his attention span for deep dives into the details of rescue investigations, and undoubtedly influenced his hobbies – consuming at times a book a week (typically in science nonfiction) and gathering new perspectives from forays into modern culture.
As Dooley, 67, approaches his 9,000th work day at the Carnegie Hero Fund, he said he remembers staring at his reflection in a window of the lobby of the Oliver Building, a historic high-rise in downtown Pittsburgh, Pa., right before his 1985 interviews for a case investigator position that he’d seen posted in the classifieds section of the Pittsburgh Press.
“‘Comb your hair, Dooley,’” he said he thought to himself, pulling a comb from his pocket to smooth things out before riding an elevator to the sixth floor suite that housed the then-81-year-old Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.
Dooley had graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in English 11 years earlier. Post-graduation, he and wife Pat McGlone were living in a Pittsburgh-area apartment where, he said, he wrote every day. He worked part-time jobs while free-lancing short-reads like book reviews for the Pittsburgh Press and crafting longer, research-based projects to shop as book pitches.
One piece, published by the Christian Science Monitor in 1984, was about his first foray into gardening, after taking over an abandoned garden in the backyard of his apartment overlooking the Ohio River.
“I was never really interested in gardening, but it was interesting to see that patch of ground come back to life,” he said.
At the time he was trying to soak up as much information as he could about a vast number of subjects.
“They always teach you to, ‘write what you know,’” Dooley said. “But in college, I thought, ‘I don’t know anything.’ I thought the more things I experience, the more I would have to write about, so
that’s what I set out to do.”
College included a 3.5-month stay with a family in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he worked on a documentary film intended to disseminate successful grape growing techniques to farmers whose
vineyards were enclosed by high mud walls. The students’ return stateside was delayed by the 1973 Afghan coup d’état that transitioned the Afghan government from a monarchy to a republic.
“It was a little scary to be there during the coup,” said Dooley, who spent a year learning Farsi for the trip.
That thirst for knowledge and new experiences are part of the reason he’s enjoyed his work at the Hero Fund so much, he said. In addition, the opportunity to write and the positive mission of the organization were appealing, Dooley said.
“I like that it’s a fact-based award,” he said. “It’s not a feel-good award, we’re not deciding one case over another, it’s just, ‘Do you meet the awarding requirements? Yes? Then you get the Carnegie Medal.’”
Hired as a case investigator, Dooley began traveling around the United States, and sometimes Canada, to interview key witnesses, rescuers, victims, and experts.
“It was very difficult. Getting around a new place, finding people, and then getting them to talk to you, all while asking them to confront memories of something that was perhaps traumatic, and likely happened over a year ago. There’s no easy day when it comes to getting facts,” Dooley said. “But it was also such a mind-opening experience, talking to people I would never have otherwise met.”
The ‘80s at the Hero Fund marked the gradual transition away from traveling to the location of the rescue to gather the facts and more toward conducting investigations from the office using phone calls and agency reports to assemble the pieces of what happened.
In 1990, Dooley was promoted to Investigations Manager. He continued to investigate acts of heroism, but he also oversaw the entire team, vetting cases before they got to the investigator and beginning the process of gathering contact information, eyewitness statements, and agency reports before handing the case off to be further investigated and written up.
Today, Dooley manages a team of four investigators. He tracks every nomination that comes into the office (an average of four a day) and begins that case’s initial information-gathering process. Once some information has come in about the nomination – usually by mail – he assesses the case to see if, at face-value, it looks like the rescuer or rescuers would meet the stringent criteria for the Carnegie Medal.
At that point, he starts a deeper investigation, sending correspondence to the rescuer, any identified eyewitnesses, the victim, or any other “case principal” whose contact information is readily available.
Office Manager Jo Braun said Dooley sends out between 50 and 70 letters every week.
Then he divvies the cases among the investigators, who conduct a full investigation and write a report, which then goes back to Dooley, who fact checks and edits the report, before it moves on in the review process.
“Our names may go on the [reports] but Jeff has already erected the framework before we’ve made our first phone call. He deserves a ton of credit and is the first one to deflect it,” Case Investigator Joe Mandak said.
Often Dooley is called on at board meetings to answer questions about the individual cases, coming prepared with a mental list of answers to any possible questions he can foresee.
Case Investigator Chris Foreman said he was impressed with the level of detail of Dooley’s knowledge on any case for the last 35 years.
“As I’m working on a case, I’m often impressed by how often Jeff can summon a detail from his memory about that case to be able to ensure we’ve exhausted every angle to explain a rescue to the best of our ability,” Foreman said. “While an investigator might have an intimate understanding of a couple of dozen cases a year, Jeff has had a hand in evaluating hundreds of cases every year. That encyclopedic knowledge often extends to cases throughout his time here.”
Humble and quiet – “a quiet and steady presence in the office,” Case Investigator Susan Rizza said – Dooley also took on the responsibility of keeping the Hero Fund’s network connections and electronics up-to-date and running properly. He has no background or formal training in Information Technology, but out of everyone on staff, he was the most knowledgeable and most willing to learn about the field when it came time to appoint someone to manage the task.
“He exhibits great intellectual curiosity, attention to detail and genuine compassion for those involved in rescues; whether they be heroes or victims,” said Eric Zahren, Hero Fund president.
Dooley said that he continues to enjoy working at the Hero Fund for many of the same reasons the organization appealed to him 35 years ago, but in addition the stability of the organization has allowed him to have a life outside the office, as well.
“Ultimately, if there’s any one thing I’ve learned over the years,” Dooley said. “It’s that life can change in a heartbeat. I think that’s affected me.”
Dooley and McGlone live in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. They raised one (now-adult) daughter, Rebecca, who lives in Virginia.
— Jewels Phraner, outreach coordinator/editor