Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day Reflection on a Proud Irish Public Servant

I dug out my eulogy for Mary Kay Begley, the long-time Metropolitian Utilities District board member and passionate Democrat who died in February 2010.

Permit an Irishman a few words about a dedicated public servant we lost this week.

Mary Kay Begley died this week. She is survived by her husband Dan and four boys, Brian, Mark, Danny, and Jim – and their spouses and children. Mrs. Begley was a neighbor and friend. The Begleys and Maxwells shared lots of baseball games and fast pitch softball. I was Jim’s confirmation sponsor. You probably recognize the name because Mrs. Begley served more than 20 years on the MUD board. She started out in life as a teacher. She had a master’s degree in American History. She stepped out of the classroom to raise her boys, but she never stopped being a teacher. The teacher gene rubbed off most on Brian, who is the principal at Millard North. Once the boys were raised, Mrs. Begley got back into public life by becoming the first woman elected to the MUD board. That was in 1988.

The Begleys were active in politics long before Mrs. Begley’s election and they’re still active today. They are old-school Irish Catholic Democrats. The pope, JFK, and Notre Dame are enshrined in the Begley home. It always bothered Mrs. Begley that I never hit the trifecta, the litany, the Holy Trinity: Irish Catholic . . . Independent? That’s what I was for 20-some years. She had no use for that at all. Then I committed the mortal sin of changing my registration to Republican.

As bad as that was, I also made the mistake of going to Boston College, a school that developed a nasty habit of beating Notre Dame. I tried to tell her that BC was America’s true Irish Catholic football team. We actually have real live Irish Catholics on our team. No sale. In 1993, BC kicked a field goal at the end of a game to upset Notre Dame and cost the Fighting Irish a national championship. Mrs. Begley called our house and thundered: “Boston College beating Notre Dame is like Jesus the Son beating up on God the Father.”

Despite my transgressions on these vital matters of faith, Mrs. Begley and the Begley family supported me in all my political campaigns, and I will always be grateful for that. I guess that means friendship between good people and good families transcends everything else.

And the truth is, while I am a Republican, I do have a soft spot in my heart for that Irish Catholic Democrat tradition. There was a time when shop windows in Omaha, Nebraska, had signs that said: Help wanted, no Irish need apply. Or: dogs and Catholics need not apply. Whether it was New York or Boston or Chicago or Omaha, the Irish responded in two ways. We got educated, and we got organized politically. I’m a beneficiary of that legacy. I’ve never experienced any serious ethnic or religious bigotry. A few people in the stem cell research debate have appealed to anti-Catholic sentiment to promote embryonic stem cell research, but generally I can do what I want and be what I want. I am grateful to the people who took some lumps, sometimes literally, so that I could have a relatively smooth path in life.

I do plan to follow up on a juicy nugget revealed by Fr. George Sullivan, S.J., who gave the eulogy at Mrs. Begley’s funeral. Fr. Sullivan said that Mrs. Begley’s masters thesis was on the Republican National Convention of 1860 that nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. No wonder she had that grin on her face lying there in the casket. She got away without having to explain that one. That fact certainly was well hidden – hidden from me, anyway. When my number is up, if I can talk my way past St. Peter, you’d better believe I’m gonna hold Mrs. Begley accountable for that one.

Until then, Mrs. Begley, as the Irish plaque in your home says, I hope you were in Heaven 30 minutes before the devil knew you were dead. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her.

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