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My Turn: Mary Mongan was a leader in health, and a victim of COVID-19

  • Mary Mongan, a resident in a Manchester long-term care facility, died in May at age 94. Courtesy

  • As the AIDS epidemic raged, Mary Mongan pushed for an education effort and outreach to gay men, despite the stigma of the disease at the time. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 10/17/2020 7:01:31 PM

Perhaps the most heart-breaking moment of New Hampshire’s collective struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic was when we learned in May that the Villa Crest nursing home in Manchester had been overrun by the virus. My grandmother was one of those lost.

The novel coronavirus hit our elderly and infirm mercilessly, and they overwhelmingly bore the brunt of the first wave. Ultimately though, because of education, isolation and the selfless work of our frontline health workers, the curve was bent to the will of a concerned public in New Hampshire, saving lives and honoring the memory of those who died so others could live.

But now a leadership vacuum in the capitol threatens to waste their sacrifice on the eve of an election. My grandmother, a former commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services for New Hampshire, would have a lot to say about that.

Margaret Mary Mahoney Mongan passed away at the age of 94 years old on May 27. There was never a more devoted daughter of New Hampshire. Yet, due to the pandemic, there was no funeral Mass to honor her. As my sister and I said at a small graveside service: when some people die they leave holes in our society so large that it takes dozens or hundreds of people to fill them — and we certainly need those people now.

My grandmother spent her entire adult life in public service. Out of high school, she enlisted in the U.S. Navy Cadet Corps to become a nurse during World War II. In her free time, while raising two kids, she led her husband’s successful campaign to become mayor of Manchester. They were both Republicans. When he took office, she ran the show, occupying an office in front of his so that you physically had to get through her first.

As she told – or admonished – a group of aldermen at a meeting once, she was a “doer” not a “talker.” That reputation followed her throughout her career. As a state house reporter wrote upon her passing, she “demanded a high level of performance and did not suffer fools.”

One story from her time as health commissioner sums it up. It was in the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was suddenly raging. My grandmother pushed for a robust education effort and outreach to gay men, despite the stigma of the disease at the time. For this, she was criticized by local media and many state leaders and legislators. They saw it as encouraging a deviant lifestyle.

But she launched her program nonetheless, knowing she may lose her job. My grandmother later told me that, as a nurse, she was trained to help treat and prevent disease, and people were dying. It never crossed her mind not to do it. She remained at her post and likely saved countless lives.

The plaques and awards from efforts like that on behalf of children, public health, housing and the elderly were everywhere in her house. But she never seemed to enjoy praise much.

I think she would rather be remembered as Mary, who grew up simply in the corporate housing of the Amoskeag Mills, where her father was a firefighter. Mary, who was a willful and unafraid young girl. Mary, who became blind for several months as a child after falling over a railing headfirst onto concrete, and who never forgot again how lucky she was to be alive.

Maybe her example will inspire others. I deeply hope that it does.

Her old boss was Gov. John Sununu. His son is now also governor. And while New Hampshire has “flattened its curve,” I think she would be concerned that politics are now muting his leadership and putting the state at risk. I think my grandmother would march in to (the younger) Gov. Sununu’s office and demand he mandate face coverings and social distancing in public. I think she would tell him to do the unpopular thing to save lives, as she did.

We need leaders like my grandmother right now as we face perhaps another wave of this pandemic. I am confident this crisis will forge them. Some of them are already leading – in firehouses, hospitals and schools – doing what needs to be done. They lead by example. They fill the holes.

Others still are very young and will be born of this pandemic. My niece is three years old. Many of her first memories will be of her family sheltering at home, struggling but surviving together. She spends her days taunting her older brother. She is willful and unafraid. Her name is Mary.

Evan Thies is a native of Bedford, New Hampshire, who lives in New York City.

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