Mary Ellen McNally found herself alone on the stage, as she has so many times as a relentless champion of special causes.
But this occasion was different, starting off what should be recognized as Mary Ellen McNally Month in Colorado Springs. On Feb. 3 at Stargazers Theatre and Event Center, the community fixture was looking out on an admiring audience of friends and civic leaders, all there to honor her for decades of serving others.
McNally, who has lent her guidance and energy to thousands of events, charities and issues through the years, was receiving Citizens Project's annual Divine Award, described as going to "a person whose commitment to diversity, equality and religious freedom has impacted the community in positive and lasting ways."
By the time this event was done, more than a few attendees couldn't help but wonder why it took so long for the 74-year-old dynamo to win this award.
That point struck home in a sad way at the presentation, as we learned that all the attention — culminating in a special celebrity roast on Feb. 26 at Cheyenne Mountain Resort, hosted by Indy columnist Rich Tosches, to benefit Cheyenne Village — is coming exactly three years too late.
It was in February 2008 that McNally lost her husband, Dr. Michael McNally, arguably the finest neurosurgeon Colorado Springs has ever known. So when Mary Ellen stood on that stage, after 10 presenters took turns offering tributes to her, she talked about losing her "best friend" — and she choked up with emotion.
"He gave me the love and support to do what I wanted to do," she said. "I wouldn't be the woman I am today without him. And I miss him terribly."
It was painful, yet so moving, to see someone who has been such a strong, determined force for so long, showing her most vulnerable side.
After raising her four children, McNally tackled a more public life. She served on the School District 11 board, then later City Council. Her peers respected her tenacity, and she never minded differing from the majority. One example came in 1987, as Mayor Robert Isaac worked a deal that brought minor-league baseball to the city, with the Hawaii Islanders becoming the Sky Sox. McNally didn't like the idea, saying seriously, "There's too much bad weather for baseball here."
She was in the minority then, but McNally has fought many other battles through the years, winning most. She's backed various ballot issues that would help the city and area. Most recently, she co-chaired the push for a strong-mayor government, and she's ready for what she sees as the next campaign, changing Memorial Health System from a city-owned enterprise to an independent nonprofit. And she doesn't mind taking sides in local races.
But while so many other activists have mentors and/or role models, it's clear that McNally was influenced in a different way: by the hypocrisy and discrimination that she saw — and experienced — growing up in Scranton, Pa., an Irish-dominated, blue-collar city. She came from a large Italian family, and heard such epithets as "dago" and "wop" because of her heritage. She wound up marrying an Irishman, but she kept that Italian spunk.
When she encountered more blatant discrimination here, the result of having a daughter with developmental disabilities and a gay son, it further inspired her. It also led to her involvement with organizations such as Citizens Project, the Southern Colorado AIDS Project, Cheyenne Village (disclosure: I'm also a CV board member) and so many others.
Today, McNally herself has become the role model and mentor. Current Councilor Jan Martin said she "tried, really tried, to keep up with Mary Ellen, but it's impossible ... her years of service to the city can't be matched."
But perhaps the best words came from Chuck Murphy, who has used his construction business to preserve so much for the area. Murphy recalled an old saying that he thought was appropriate, and he was right.
Mary Ellen McNally, as he used that old saying, isn't just special.
"She's one between a million."