Amy McGrath Set Her Sights on the Marines and Now Congress. Her Mother Is the Reason.
Posted July 6, 2018 6:32 p.m. EDT
Updated July 6, 2018 6:38 p.m. EDT
EDGEWOOD, Ky. — The story of how Amy McGrath went from U.S. Naval Academy graduate to Marine combat aviator to candidate for Congress really begins on the Sunday before Labor Day 1951 in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bellevue.
That was when her mother, Marianne, only 10 at the time, stumbled as she tried to climb the stairs to her room. The day before, she had had a horrible backache and fever. She made it to her bed, but after she lay down, she could not move her left leg. Her father, a physician, pricked her leg and she felt nothing. “He knew,” Marianne McGrath said. “The look on his face, I will never forget. He was devastated.”
In a year with a record number of women running for Congress, Amy McGrath did not have to look far for inspiration. Like other female candidates, McGrath, 43, was jolted into political action by President Donald Trump’s election. But she had her mother already driving her.
Although polio restricted her mother’s life, it did not define her. Marianne went on to become a pediatrician after enduring rampant sexism at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. But after suffering from post-polio syndrome, she lost the use of her left leg and could not stand for her rounds as a pediatrician. So she went back to school at night, completing a residency in psychiatry.
Now her daughter is running for Congress as a Democrat in Kentucky’s Republican-held 6th District on the power of an origin story that shows the same resolve as her mother. Amy McGrath knew her mother could not run, so she pushed herself to be a three-sport star athlete. She knew her mother had broken barriers, so she felt empowered to challenge the male-dominated norms of the military. And she knew her mother had endured pain and emotional hardship, so she pushed herself to do the same.
“She’s the reason I am successful in anything,” the younger McGrath said.
Polio was a scourge of the 20th century’s first half, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was the national personification of the virus. People avoided swimming pools and physical exertion and cleaned their homes obsessively. Among those who were infected, terror spread as paralysis crept through their bodies from legs to arms, to the torso, sometimes to the brain.
On that warm late-summer afternoon in 1951, an ambulance took Marianne McGrath to the contagion ward at Presbyterian Hospital, where her polio was confirmed. It was the only reported case of polio in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County that year, she said.
After three months in the hospital, she spent nine additional months in the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, a converted mansion that overlooked the Ohio River.
She was isolated and frightened. The therapy — painful deep tissue massage, stretching, hot compresses of foul-smelling steamed wool — was “torture,” she said. She avoided an iron lung, but not the rocking bed, which moved her up and down to simulate respiration.
She lay in a windowless cubicle and could not turn over without assistance. Other than brief visits at holidays, on a stretcher bed, she did not return home for a year.
“When I went to the hospital to see her, people there were in iron lungs,” said her younger brother, Ray, whom the family called Fritz. “I was scared to death she would end up in one of those.”
Near the end of her stay, another Pittsburgh physician who knew her father, Dr. Jonas Salk, was looking for patients who had contracted polio to test his experimental vaccine. Her father volunteered his oldest child.
When Marianne returned home, she could walk with braces and crutches. Before polio, Marianne wanted to be an Olympic figure skater or the first woman to play Major League baseball. Now, when they played stickball, Marianne would bat, and Fritz would run for her.
Mothers took their children to the other side of the street when they saw her approach. “That was a powerful message to me about how frightened people were and how little they knew,” she said. Only after Salk’s vaccine became widely available in 1955 did the fears about the virus subside.
She began taking streetcars to art classes at Carnegie Tech on her crutches. “It taught me that, damn it, if I want to do it, I can do it,” she said.
Her favorite book as a child was “The Little Engine That Could.”
Then her father was transferred to work at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility in northern Kentucky. She hated high school because she was “different,” always using crutches, but she did well academically.
At Villa Madonna College, she decided she wanted to be a doctor. She was accepted to the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, which had only a few female students, only to find colleagues questioning why she was “taking a man’s spot.”
“In those days what we call sexual harassment today was the norm,” she said. “You knew as a woman that if you were going into a man’s profession, you had to decide how to deal with it.”
She became a pediatrician and married her husband, Donald, a high school teacher, then had three children: Jane, a lawyer, Matthew, a high school history teacher who holds a doctorate, and Amy. “We generally just look at my mom and say she is able to do anything,” said Jane Sora, her eldest child. “We look at our lives and we think the same thing.”
Amy McGrath’s two older siblings were so academically advanced, they skipped junior high school. She did not, in part because she was intent on playing sports.
“A lot of that was because mom couldn’t,” McGrath said.
Amy McGrath was accepted to the only school to which she applied, the Naval Academy.
McGrath recalled tearing a ligament in her knee, requiring surgery before prom.
“I was crying and feeling sorry for myself. Prom? Can’t dance!” she said. “And then I look at my mom, and she can barely walk. Shut up, Amy! It was always that way.” Her mother did not push her children so much as provide constant and reliable support.
“From a very early age, she gave me enough balance of guidance but also she did such a good job of letting the strings go from mother to daughter, not making me feel bad that I was gone,” McGrath said.
While her daughter was in high school, Marianne McGrath was diagnosed with breast cancer. She overcame that, too.
Her daughter’s realization of her dream to be a pilot both heartened her mother and filled her with fear. She once refused to look at a picture of her daughter in Iraq, wearing a gas mask at a time of great concern about chemical weapons. Marianne McGrath also had to overcome a fear of flying so she could visit Amy when she was posted stateside. The stresses of being in combat were many, and Amy McGrath said she turned to her mother more than her fellow Marines.
“I wanted to be available to her because I knew that she trusted me to listen and to not say anything to anyone,” said Marianne McGrath, 77.
Amy McGrath joked: “Who has a psychiatrist on speed dial? Nothing ever got to the point of a total crisis because I got to talk it through with her.”
Ten years ago, Donald McGrath, who had not been seriously ill in 45 years, was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. The disease progressively worsened, robbing him of his ability to chew. So Marianne McGrath essentially forswore her love of cooking and made soups and other liquefied foods that he could tolerate. She cared for him more as a nurse than a doctor and retired from her medical practice two years ago to do so full time.
“She told me once that she lost the music in her soul,” said her sister, Margie Kleese.
One night in April, as they sat in their living room, and while their daughter was making a campaign appearance more than an hour’s drive away, Donald McGrath died unexpectedly. At the funeral home, the line was so long that Marianne McGrath had to stand for nearly four hours, too.
And then, she had to quickly pivot to her daughter’s campaign for the House.
“Did I think she would run for office? No,” McGrath said. “Not until this last presidential campaign, and the more I heard of it and the more I thought of it, ‘Oh, damn, she’s going to want to get caught up in doing something about this.'”
“I just wish she would do something easy.”