President mom

Last modified: 3/6/2011 12:00:00 AM
What passes for Gail DeMasi's office sits tucked in a basement corner of her Munsonville home. A bookcase and table are stocked with literature on politics, abortion and the law. But the desk is covered with boxes of Crayola markers, stacks of games, and children's reading and coloring books.

DeMasi, mother of 14 and grandmother of five (with three more due this summer), recently became president of Citizens for Life, entering politics hesitantly at age 55. She likes to say she inherited leadership of the state's most vocal pro-life group, that it was given to her even though she didn't seek it and tried to refuse it.

'I don't really know anything about politics. I vote, I read and I stay informed, but I have a perception of politicians as being on some other plane from the regular people,' she said.

DeMasi lives on 10 acres in Munsonville, a rural village overlapping Nelson and Stoddard in the northern reaches of Cheshire County, with her husband, Andy, the five youngest of her 14 children and Collette, a woman with disabilities they care for.

She knows some people will think she's crazy for having 14 kids. She knows they'll think that's the only thing worth learning about her, and they'll feel justified judging her based on only that.

She knows this because it's happened before, dozens of times. What she would say to every person who made a snide comment at the grocery store might shock them more than the size of the DeMasi clan: Come to dinner.

'It's fun,' she said. At dinner, visitors see 'we're people, too. The kids are normal. They're fun to be with. They're delightful, they're

engaging. The ideas that people have about a large family, I don't know what they think, but we like them to get to know us.'

'We were happy'

DeMasi's days start at 5 a.m., when she gets up to make coffee. She and Andy spend an hour together before the kids start waking up, then it's time for prayer together, and off to Keene for morning Mass.

When the family gets back home, they start school, Greek, Latin, math, science, writing. They'll take breaks for piano lessons, driver's education for the teens, classes online or to get snacks for the young ones.

On Thursday, the house hummed with activity. Her 4-year-old grandson, Joshua, dozed on a sun-kissed couch in the living room; his brother Ryan napped in another room, and his aunts and uncles did their schoolwork at the long wooden kitchen table.

Baking bread scented the kitchen. Collette's rocking chair creaked rhythmically. Dogs romped, diving and weaving between the legs of people and tables and chairs. DeMasi hardly blinked at a ruckus that sounded like a metal dog dish falling down a flight of stairs.

Andy, a carpenter by trade, built their house after a fire destroyed their home in Antrim 15 years ago. They incorporated personal touches, like a stone from Appian Way in Rome in the fireplace. A large crucifix anchors the mantel, flanked by gold-plated icons and paintings of saints. Almost all of them have palm fronds tucked into the frames.

The family is devoutly Catholic, but Demasi and her husband didn't set out to have a large family, she said. It started growing before they turned deeply to their faith, and they felt no reason to stop it.

'We really love each other. We were happy, and we were happy to welcome children. There were hard times, and we were very poor for a long time, but we were happy,' she said.

The DeMasis make some of their living buying, renovating and selling homes across the Monadnock Region. Between that, breeding and selling Bernese mountain dogs, and Andy's work outside the home - as a carpenter for years and now as a counselor at a school in Vermont - the family makes ends meet. But times weren't always easy.

DeMasi used to make up games for her kids so they wouldn't realize how poor they were, she said. When neighbors or friends dropped off bags of hand-me-down clothes, she'd cheerily announce 'we're going shopping,' as the kids sorted and tried on the gifts.

'One day I realized I had to tell them what shopping really was. They really thought it was when you got a bag full of clothes,' she said.

Her children range in age from 10 years old to the mid-30s. Of the older children, one is just across the street; others live across town and across the country. One lives in Austria and another is a missionary in Spain. They all paid their own way through college.

'It's not apathy'

When DeMasi talks about the hard times her family has seen, tragedies and poverty, lines around her mouth and dark blue eyes deepen. But when she tells stories about the happy times - how two of her boys proposed breeding puppies to earn their own tuition to a private high school - or when she shows off the ring featuring one tiny gem for each of her children's birth months, a surprise from Andy one Christmas, her face smoothes and she appears girlish, eyes shining and cheeks pink.

And when she talks about her new role in politics, her eyes fill with a mix of trepidation and determination.

'I really think there are a lot of people like myself, who don't really know what's happening. I believe it's not apathy. It's not that people don't care,' she said. 'It's a perceived inability to dialogue about the issues. Like some people refer to the 'unchurched,' I call them the 'unpolitic.' '

She's been a member of the Citizens for Life board for many years, and was nominated for president by Roger Stenson when he retired from the job a few months ago. The group has 2,000 dues-paying members in New Hampshire, and sends a representative to the board of the National Right to Life Committee.

DeMasi hasn't quite hit the ground running, but she's hoping to shake some things up. She's looking into starting a website and signing up for Facebook. She's reading lots of literature on the issues, recruiting new members for the board who can take a more active approach than past boards.

Some of the 'old, tired language' the pro-life movement has been using for years doesn't work anymore, she said.

'There's phrases people read and they can just be inert to them, or they can be antagonized by them. . . . I really want to appeal to people's hearts and their sensibilities. I think everybody has a conscience. Everybody knows what's right and what's wrong,' she said.

Stenson said DeMasi has no reason to be nervous about her new public role. 'She's one of the most intelligent and dedicated people I've ever known,' he said.

'She is a woman who is very focused, and despite a plethora of distractions,' Stenson said with a laugh, 'she has the ability to remain focused. . . . Gail has a servant's heart.'

Rabble-rousing

Looking back, DeMasi said this isn't her first foray into public affairs. When she was in ninth grade, her father moved the family - seven boys and girls - from Westport, Conn., to tiny Fitzwilliam to escape the rat race of New York City, where he worked as a publishing executive.

In high school, she was a rabble-rouser, she said with a mix of pride and embarrassment. The year beloved teachers clashed with school officials, she staged a student walkout, spoke on the local radio station and generally caused trouble for the folks in charge.

After high school, she attended Keene State College for a few years and studied to be a social worker, but left to marry and start a family. That marriage ended in divorce and she found herself a single mother with two children, and no job.

The only interview she could get was at the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. 'I went in all dressed up, really dressed to the nines, like you would for a normal job interview,' she said. Instead of meeting someone at a desk in an office, she was shown through two sets of heavy, locked doors and led to a room where a dozen naked, developmentally disabled men lived.

The hospital had recently been forced to separate the developmentally disabled population from the criminally insane and violent residents, and it was now DeMasi's job to supervise the ward. She stayed for three years in a job where some people hadn't lasted a week, she said.

She went back to school on weekends, earning a degree from Trinity College in Vermont, and met Andy, who also worked at the hospital.

Eventually they married and moved to New Hampshire to start their family. When her parents grew too infirm to live alone, they moved in. Her mother, used to a big old Victorian in Fitzwilliam with parlors and pantries and lots of space, demanded a separate addition to the house, complete with an indoor pool. So the family built one.

Her father used it for exercise. Today, Collette, the disabled woman who lives with them, uses it for therapy, and the kids and grandkids play in the 84-degree water even as snow drifts block the basement's windows.

On Thursday, when Joshua woke up from his nap, he wanted a second bath. But he and younger brother Ryan could use some active time, DeMasi thought. Wouldn't they like to go for a swim instead?

The boys bought into the new plan, and set off to change into their swimsuits. It was an easy victory for DeMasi, who might find tougher battles ahead as she becomes a standard-bearer for the pro-life movement in New Hampshire.

Her first initiative will be a print ad campaign featuring signatures from people who support reinstating a law requiring parental notification or consent for minors seeking abortions. She said she still gets nervous before testifying at legislative hearings, but as she learns more about the issues and their history, she's gaining confidence.

'I haven't conquered the idea yet that I'm not quite capable,' she said, but 'people are by nature political.'

She said she's ready to devote time to helping the organization grow. But on Thursday, her focus was squarely on her grandchildren.

After splashing and jumping in the pool, 2-year-old Ryan decided enough was enough. He reached out chubby toddler arms to DeMasi, who swaddled him in a beach towel and carried him upstairs.

Cooing to the child bundled in her arms, she carried him past the computer and the desk tucked into that basement corner without glancing at them, past the piles of political literature that wait until she has time for them again.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)




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