Hall of Fame Honors The “Yes” Woman
athy-pic.jpg” alt=”" title=”Kathy pic” width=”380″ height=”380″ class=”size-full wp-image-7755″ /> Hall of Fame honoree Kathy McGee Burns.
Kathy McGee Burns opens the bright yellow door to her home and invites me in. On a cold, wet October morning, there’s a gas fire flickering in the fireplace, which is framed by classic Chinoiserie. Tables and bookshelves are chockablock with family photos and souvenirs from her many trips–to Ireland, Europe, Asia, and the Holy Land. Irish singer John McEvoy lilts softly in the background from the CD player.
When I tell her I love her home, she tilts her head. “What is it about it that you love?” The happy colors, I tell her—the corals, pinks and reds that echo the hibiscus vines I can see through the wall of windows, circling the gazebo in her backyard. “What I love,” she says, “are the things I’ve collected on my trips.” She picks up a small bowl from a side table. “Like this. These are whirling dervishes. I bought this in Turkey.”
“Whirling dervishes,” I say. “How appropriate.” She laughs. “You think I’m a whirling dervish?”
If you look at the resume of the woman who has been president of the Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame for seven years—and who is being honored by the organization in this, her last year—you’d agree that as a descriptor, “rapidly spinning object” is pretty close to dead-on. Force of nature also comes to mind.
Kathy McGee Burns has served as the first female president of the Donegal Association of Philadelphia, the second female president of the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Observance Association (and a board member since 2004), board member of the Irish Memorial, member of the St. Malachy’s School Advisory Board, board member of the Claddagh Fund, vice president of the Commodore Barry Club, treasurer of the Hunger Strikers 25th Anniversary Committee. . .the list goes on.
Where do you get the energy, I ask her. She is 75, works fulltime as a realtor for Prudential Fox & Roach, and has 14 grandchildren to spoil.
“I think it’s because I love life,” she answers. “The other thing is that I can never say no to anyone. That’s why I’m involved. People know I get the job done, and I do.”
She has a motto, she says. People who know Kathy McGee Burns know she has many mottos. A dedicated collector of inspirational quotations, she has one delivered to her by email every day. “My motto,” she says, “is what is worth doing is worth doing well. Every time I do a new job I don’t in any way pull back on it. I say give it your best. It’s what I say when I go to work every day.”
It’s a trait borne largely of motherhood— and that’s motherhood on a grand scale. “I think my work ethic actually comes from being a mother,” she says. “When I had nine little children, I knew in my heart that I was responsible for every one of those little children and had to do my best for every one of them.”
And those nine little children were all little at the same time. At 17, Kathy graduated from Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown and was married shortly thereafter. By the time she was 20 she had six children under the age of four, including a set of twins. After her seventh, she and her husband divorced and she was faced with raising them alone on $100 a week in child support.
She not only assumed she wouldn’t marry again, she couldn’t imagine anyone even wanting to date a woman with seven children. Then, friends introduced her to Mike Burns. Her kids fell in love with him first. “He fell in love with them too. So basically, they fixed me up. We never had a date. Just one day we went out and got married.”
They’ve been married for 45 years and have two sons together, Peter and Josh, who joined the Wall children, Kathy, Kim, Tony, Kelly, Tracy, Tierney and Tim, in the little house in Lafayette Hill where Kathy and Mike still live.
She was still pregnant with Peter when she enrolled at Montgomery County Community College. Her first assignment: Write a composition about anything you want, said her teacher. She tore a topic from the headlines at the time—the riots at Attica prison, in which 13 inmates and four guards were killed.
She started researching prisons and their focus, not on rehabilitation, but punishment. “I read a letter to the editor in the local paper from an inmate at Graterford Prison (in Collegeville) that said there was no rehab in prison and that when people leave, they’re twice as angry. He said that if you wanted to be involved in making things better, you need to come to prison and ask what we need. Which is, of course, exactly what I did.”
It was the beginning of more than a decade of volunteer work Kathy and Mike did at the prison. It was also, she says, “the beginning of my writing career.” She has been a regular contributor to the Irish Edition, a newspaper covering the Philadelphia Irish community, for many years, and is a regular contributor to www.irishphiladelphia.com.
And she continued her college education. It took her 16 years, but in 1986, she graduated cum laude with a bachelor of arts in history from Chestnut Hill College. She was immediately accepted into Temple University School of Law, which she attended for two years before deciding that law wasn’t her destiny.
By then, something else began to consume her—the search for her Irish identity. At the time, Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers at Long Kesh prison were starving themselves to death to protest conditions there. “Bobby was the same age as my son, Tony. I thought, here I am, with a son that age, and I’m taking him to a posh college in Chicago and there is Mrs. Sands watching her son slowly starve to death. I asked myself what I would give my life for. My children, of course. But my country? I don’t know. The idea of starving yourself to death for freedom took me over and put me on a path.” She wanted to know where she was from—and more. “I wanted to know, were my people republican? Did my people ever do anything to help?”
Her father, who came from a poor family but built his own successful florist business, knew little about his Irish heritage. He offered only one clue: “We’re related to every McGee in Bridgeport, PA, Kathy,” he told her. So she contacted every McGee in Bridgeport until she found one who offered one slim lead: the lines to an old song she’s heard their parents sing, “We come from Donegal where they eat potatoes, skins and all.”
On this barest of clues, she assumed the McGees were from Donegal and applied to join the Donegal Association. She volunteered for everything and, in 2001, she was elected its first woman president. But what most of the members didn’t know is that a week before she was nominated, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She told only a few people, including the association’s president, Vince Gallagher. “I wanted to know if they still wanted me to take the office,” she explains. “They said yes, I was elected, and I was thrilled. I went from not know where I came from to being the first woman president of the Donegal Society. My life is full of wonderful things, isn’t it?”
She seems unaware that she has been talking about the same period in which she went through surgery and 36 weeks of chemo for a malignant tumor. I remind her. “That wasn’t a wonderful thing,” I say.
She dismisses that idea. “I saw it as a journey,” she explains. “It was another road that presented itself to me, although I was pushed onto this road kicking and screaming.” She laughs, then becomes serious again.
“You know how people say that after being sick their whole life changes? My life didn’t change one bit. I was already doing what I wanted to do.”
One of the things she wanted to do was track down her family in Ireland. She got unexpected help from Patsy Duddy, who had been the president of the Donegal Association when she joined. She and Mike were going to Ireland and he recommended that while she was in Letterkenny, she stay at his brother Mickey’s bed and breakfast. Mickey arranged an introduction to a local man, Hughie McGee. When she met him, she says, “The hair stood up on the back of my neck. He looked exactly like my Uncle Hughie McGee!”
Later, DNA testing confirmed the link. “The day I got the word that we were related was magical to me,” says Kathy.
One of the best days of her life, she says, was when, last year, as president of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade committee, she gave the welcoming remarks at the annual Mass at St. Patrick’s Church and looked out at her family—including the Donegal McGees, who flew over to be there, and a Bridgeport cousin she met only recently—and realized that “they were sitting there, proud of me. When I left the church, I grabbed my cousin from Ireland and introduced him to my brother and his son. ‘Hughie McGee,’ I said, ‘I’d like you to meet my brother, Hughie McGee, and his son, Hughie McGee.’ I have a photo of the three of them in my office!”
But one of the most thrilling days of her life, she says, was in 2002 when she was named “person of the year” by Clan na Gael, an Irish Republican organization in the US, active in supporting the cause of Irish freedom since the 19th century. “It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever gotten—it had so much meaning to me,” she says. “One of the first things my cousin, Hughie McGee, said to me was ‘I want you to know that you’re from a good republican family.’ I was proud. My question—did my family do anything to help—was answered.”
Though she is leaving the Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame and shedding a few of her other volunteer jobs, don’t expect retirement news from Kathy McGee Burns any time soon. She’s just making room for the new things she’s taken on, like raising money for St. Malachy’s, a mission school in the North Philadelphia parish where her grandparents lived.
“When a road presents itself to me, I take it,” she says. “I feel like something new is presenting itself to me now. I just don’t know what it is. I’d go back to college to get a master’s and a doctorate in a second. I loved school. But I don’t know what’s coming. All I know,” she says with a laugh, “is that I’ll say yes.”
The annual Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame dinner is Sunday, Nov. 11. Also being honored: Irish Edition photographer Tom Keenan and Irish Immigration Center Executive Director Siobhan Lyons; the Irish American Business Chamber and Network, founded by local businessman Bill McLaughlin, will receive a special award. For tickets, contact Sean McMenamin at 215-850-0518 or Maureen Brett Saxon at 610-909-0054.