A Woman Ahead of Her Time
In a time when Home Economics majors were the norm, Mary Ellen McConnell decided on a different path. "I attended St. Lawrence University where I received a BS in biology with a minor in chemistry," said Mary Ellen. "Upon graduation, a classmate and I took off for the West to see as much of the country as we could in a year. We stopped for nine months in Denver, where we both had jobs working in the biochemistry department of the University of Colorado Medical Center. From there, we traveled on to California and finally back East, camping most of the way. Once back home in New York, I was hired by Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River in their experimental pharmacology department."
You may think this sounds like the saga of a gal who graduated last year. In actual fact, Mary Ellen was unique for her times as a young woman, and she is still unique today in her role as a leader at her church, the rock of her family, and an active volunteer.
I will not tell you her age, but I will tell you that she and husband, Jack, made their first visit to Hilton Head Island on a business trip in 1974 and finally retired here, if you could call it that, in 1989. They gradually began to discover the beauties of the island and see that it was "more than just a resort," as she puts it, purchasing property in 1978 with an eye to the future. They built their retirement home here and started to look around for ways to be of use in their new community.
According to Mary Ellen, the thing she and Jack have in common is their faith; it is the glue that holds them together. "That faith and our response to a call from God is what led Jack to found the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic," she said. "Seeing the need for healthcare for the uninsured was something we could not ignore."
Mary Ellen and Jack have been retired here for 19 years. In that time, not only has VIM become an integral part of the community, but it is a nationwide group of clinics devoted to caring for the neediest of medical clients. Her part in the founding of this organization, she says, was mostly behind the scenes. She supported fundraising and managed the donor database. She also handled the books for the VIM Institute, which is the organization that starts other VIM clinics all around the country.
There is also a very deeply felt family and home side to this versatile lady. She says that their three children and five grandchildren are the light of their lives. Her son, Steve, and his family, including granddaughters, Ella and Nora, live in San Francisco; son, Page, and granddaughter, Delia, are in Burlington, VT; and daughter, Katie, and her husband and two little boys, Ben and Garrett, are in Oneonta, NY. "Though scattered across the country, we manage to see them several times a year," said Mary Ellen. "We had a wonderful family celebration in July at a beach house on the Florida Panhandle where we celebrated our 50th anniversary. We manage to get the whole family together at least once a year."
Their first home was a lovely stone house built in 1707. The trouble was, Jack had an apartment full of Danish Modern furniture. According to Mary Ellen, they spent the early years of their marriage haunting antique shops and giving each other pieces of furniture for Christmas! They acquired some of the furniture they still have today by visiting estate sales, the closing of large, older homes and attending auctions. They have an eye for art and sculpture and have a strikingly beautiful eclectic home with a fabulous view.
In addition to her supporting role with VIM, Mary Ellen serves and has served as a deacon and president of the board of deacons at First Presbyterian Church. She also has served as an elder and is a Stephen Minister. She tells me she plays golf and tennis but not as often as she would like - I wonder why? Her philosophy on retirement is that one should have hobbies, give back, and volunteer. What about sitting around watching the Weather Channel? "No," says Mary Ellen. "It is amazing how much we receive when we give back."
Q. Of all of the places you have traveled, where would you most like to
A. We love the Island of Kauai. We see so much beauty in the waterfalls
and rainbows there.
Q. What types of books do you read?
A. I like human-interest stories. My recent favorite is "Three Cups of
Tea. One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time"
by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Q. What do you see when you look out your window?
A. The scene is constantly changing. I love to watch the clouds, an
approaching storm, or the sunset over the water.
Q. How do you spend a Sunday afternoon?
A. I spend it with the Sunday Times and then a walk, perhaps to Pine
Island or along the bluff at Dolphin Head in Hilton Head Plantation.