A golden voice inspires hope
Anyone who has heard the hauntingly inspirational strains of the song that begins, “There’s got to be a morning after …” has experienced the magic of Maureen McGovern.
That theme song from the blockbuster film “The Poseidon Adventure” was an Oscar-winning International Gold Record, and launched McGovern on a recording career of dazzling breadth and depth, 36 years and still going strong.
For her incredible tonal range she’s often called The Stradivarius Voice. She’s performed with America’s most prestigious symphony orchestras, in film, on stage, on radio and television. She recently appeared on Broadway in “Little Women” (for which she received a Drama Desk nomination), “The Pirates of Penzanze” and “The Threepenny Opera.”
McGovern has more than 25 albums and CDs to her credit (see www.maureenmcgovern.com). The newest, “A Long and Winding Road,” (under the PS Classics label) is a mix of songs from top singer-songwriters of the 1960s like Paul Simon, Carole King, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. The title aptly describes her years of selfless dedication in behalf of others. To MDA’s good fortune, she’s been a vital part of its leadership for more than 20 years.
A member of the Association’s Board of Directors, McGovern also is national chairperson for the annual Shamrocks Against Dystrophy fundraising campaign.
An illness close to home
In 1990 her niece Carolyn learned she had dermatomyositis, a neuromuscular disease in MDA’s program that affects the skin and muscles. Along with the diagnosis, however, came recommendations for treatment from a dermatologist that concerned Carolyn’s mother (a nurse) and Maureen.
“I called Bob Ross [MDA’s late president and CEO] and asked him if he could direct us to someone else for a second opinion,” she said. “Dr. Larry Stern at the Tucson MDA clinic talked to my sister at length, and the next day, my niece had an appointment with Dr. Jerry Mendell at the MDA clinic near my sister’s home in Ohio.”
Through medication and careful monitoring over the next five years, Carolyn’s health stabilized, she was taken off drugs and has been in her second remission since she was 8. McGovern describes Carolyn, now a college sophomore, as “our family’s miracle. She actively does things now that we always prayed she could, like swim team and horseback riding competitions. We give undying thanks to Dr. Mendell, Dr. Stern and MDA for providing their combination of hope and great care.”
Hope becomes certainty
McGovern has been one of the most popular performers on the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon for 27 years. Even so, she said when she sang “The Morning After” shortly after learning of Carolyn’s diagnosis, she became so emotional she almost couldn’t continue.
“The lyrics of the song embodied what was almost an overpowering feeling within me. It was my ah ha moment, as if the words were saying to me, ‘We will get through this.’”
That’s the indomitable spirit she says she also sees in other children and their families affected by neuromuscular diseases. Among them are MDA national goodwill ambassadors like Abbey Umali, who this year appeared with McGovern on televised public service announcements promoting the Shamrocks campaign.
“The whole Umali family is inspiring. Abbey sings, she plays piano. Her actions say, ‘Hey! I’m just a kid, and I’m getting on with my life.’” McGovern says Abbey’s optimism is contagious. “I see in her the same spirit as other kids with neuromuscular diseases,” she said.
“They’re people who face life-threatening challenges, but rise above it. They embrace each precious moment, and that doubles my own resolve to do everything I can to help them.”
MDA summer camps are some of McGovern’s favorite places. She recalls arriving at a California camp and hearing the sounds of singing and laughter approaching through the trees.
“It was a troupe of children, most in wheelchairs, shouting and giggling, hands waving and singing to the skies! They had been on an outing of some kind and were returning to camp, oblivious to everything but the joy they were sharing.”
Near the end of one camp session, she attended a dance. A young man in a wheelchair sat in the middle of the dance floor. “He was unable to move from the neck down, but there he sat, grinning hugely, moving his chin in time to the music. As with the rest of those wonderful kids, he transcended all the difficulties that life had dealt him,” she said. “It is our job, my job, to make the lives of those children as full as possible and to work toward the day when there are no needs for treatments and cures — when neuromuscular diseases are a thing of the past.”
McGovern does this job extraordinarily well.
Although MDA commands most of her philanthropic energies, she also volunteers in behalf of charities like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and other AIDS-related organizations.
She’s an artist spokesperson for the American Music Therapy Association and created the Works of Heart Foundation for Music and Healing, which capitalizes on the power of music to heal emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Even as a child, McGovern watched and was inspired by the Telethon. She marveled at Jerry Lewis, performers, generous corporate sponsors and an outpouring of support from the public.
“Most importantly, though,” she said, “what filled my heart was the profound strength and courage of children, teens and adults with neuromuscular diseases, and the unconditional love and support of their families.
“Year after year I was touched, and one day it was not difficult at all for me to say to Bob [Ross] and Jerry Weinberg [current president & CEO], ‘I’m here; however I can be of help, please put me to work.’”