By Peter McDermott
It was a cold autumn day in 1981, Mary O’Dowd recalled, when she made the same vow for the third time. She’d been walking her daughter Ellen in her stroller when she encountered the Rev. Pat Morris on the street.
“When are you going to do the concert, Mary?” the priest asked her.
She resolved that it would happen, even though she was grieving over the recent death of her younger child, Franny, who’d been diagnosed with leukemia as a 6-week-old infant early in 1980. It took place in February 1982 with singer O’Dowd and her friend Jesse Owens on stage at a high-school auditorium on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The New York Times’ Anna Quindlen reported: “Never once did her voice break.”
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They were delighted to have raised $5,000 in aid of families who were coping with a child’s serious illness and celebrated at an after-party in the basement of St. Stephen of Hungary on East 82nd Street.
These days the Frances Pope Memorial Foundation raises a six-figure sum at its Annual Friendship Ball, which this year will take place on Feb. 11 at the Pierre, 2 East 61st St. Two long-time supporters, Gene McCarthy and Ed Kelso, will be honored at the event.
“You got to meet a lot of families who were in the same boat and maybe even worse,” Mary O’Dowd remembered three decades on.
She was very well known in the Irish community, while her husband Tony Pope was a restaurateur. “We knew a big cross-section of people,” recalled the eldest of eight children born to immigrant parents from Counties Roscommon and Sligo. “We had an outpouring of emotional support.”
That in turn led to practical support, such as the blood drive that kept the blood bank going for more than a week.
O’Dowd knew first hand that people incur huge debts when they have a child with a life-threatening illness, but she wondered about other middle-class parents who didn’t have an extensive network of friends and family – those from out of town, for example, or from overseas. That’s when she made the vow the first time to help. The second time was at Franny’s wake and funeral.
“We take care of things that insurance doesn’t take care of right now,” says family coordinator Mary Neary on a 5-minute video produced by the organization. “You have a sick child — you’ve enough to deal with. We want to make it a little bit easier.”
Social workers, priests and rabbis know that the Frances Pope Memorial Foundation is another organization that they can turn to, O’Dowd says on the video.
The organization helps parents who are behind on their mortgage payments, for example. It provides transportation, hotel and other living expenses. Last year, it bought a plane ticket for a woman to fly from the West Coast so she could mind grandchildren whose 7-year-old sister was at the hospital for a bone marrow transplant. Its donations included, too, the rent for a family in which both the father and a son were undergoing cancer treatment. (The father has since passed away, while the son continues his battle.) It paid for tuition fees so that a 17-year-old could graduate high school while undergoing extensive chemotherapy. And, as reported in the Echo recently, it arranged for Dublin couple Paul and Louise Sheils to stay at the Ronald McDonald House, while their 15-year-old son Rory was undergoing life-saving surgery.
“We never make a family uncomfortable,” she said. “When I was asked if I needed help I said: ‘Of course not.’ Well, that was a lie. They don’t want to say they need help.
“More often than not, a parent must miss a lot of work to be with their child who is hospitalized or requires home care,” she said.
Worrying about finances, she added, increases the huge emotional burden.
“We do our very best to get funds to the families as quickly as possible,” said O’Dowd, whose phone was disconnected more than once during the 1980s. “We do have a screening process in place, which is simple, unobtrusive and always thoughtful.”
The organization also supports the Andrew Baeumler Technology Program at the Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital, which gives young patients internet access. And it helps fund the salary of a pediatric oncology fellow at NYU Medical Center, as part of its commitment to train doctors to become expert in the care of children with cancer and to seek new methods of combating cancer.
O’Dowd has an active board of 19, including her daughter Ellen Preimesberger, that also organizes an annual golf outing in the summer. Her former husband Tony Pope, who later went on to a career on Wall Street, is executive vice-president. “Tony was very much a driving force in the early years of the foundation and still participates to this day,” she said.
The executive president has been able to devote all of her energies to the cause following her retirement after two decades working with Pfizer.
When she was 11, O’Dowd moved with her West of Ireland parents and her younger siblings from Manhasset, L.I., to Arizona. She came back to New York after college for what she described as her first real job, which was with American Airlines. But from her high school days, she added, she’s never not had a job. Now, she has returned to her “first love,” the organization that memorializes Franny.
She works to maintain the spirit of that after-party in the church basement 29 years ago, even if the organization holds its signature event in an elegant Fifth Avenue hotel.
“There’s nothing somber about it,” Mary O’Dowd said. “It’s a fun night.”
Email [email protected] or call toll-free 866-635-0853 or visit www.francespopefoundation.org.