Packet Sea Foam: Founder's wife important part of VIM story

info@islandpacket.comOctober 31, 2011 

Thanks to Lisa Nowak, director of development and communications for Volunteers in Medicine on Hilton Head Island, for sharing a look behind the scenes in the founder's home as the community prepares to honor his contributions with a musical event Nov. 17.


By Lisa Nowak

There's an old phrase that goes, "Behind every great man, there's a great woman." This couldn't be more true in the case of Dr. Jack McConnell, founder of Volunteers in Medicine, and his lovely wife, Mary Ellen.

While Mary Ellen enjoys her life behind the scenes, don't think that means she hasn't been a tremendous influence on Dr. Jack. And she continues to be so. Let's start at the very beginning of the story to see how this couple came to be.

Mary Ellen and Dr. Jack were both working for Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River, N.Y. -- she as a biologist in experimental therapeutics, and he as director of clinical investigation. However, it was a large campus and they probably never would have met.

At the time, Mary Ellen and her roommate shared a studio apartment and decided they needed more space. They answered an ad in the Lederle newsletter for a house. It was a lovely bungalow that they quickly decided would be just perfect. The agent showing them around explained that while it wasn't obvious, the house was built on a side hill and had a basement apartment. The bachelor who lived in the apartment was a good friend of the owner, and they wanted to make sure that he would be happy.

It didn't take Dr. Jack long to learn that Mary Ellen was a gem he didn't want to lose. Two months after the gals moved in upstairs, Dr. Jack called Mary Ellen at the office. He had tickets to "The Music Man" and wondered if she were free to entertain some out-of-town guests. As Mary Ellen tells it, "He swept me off my feet and three weeks later, we became engaged."

Over the years, the duo made a life together where Dr. Jack's medical career took him: Philadelphia and eventually New Jersey, where they lived for 20 years and raised their family of three children.

In 1989, Dr. Jack and Mary Ellen retired to Hilton Head Island. They anticipated a life of leisure, eating in good restaurants, traveling and playing golf. However, a life of leisure has never been Jack's style.

For Mary Ellen, some of those things became true -- she was able to spend some time playing golf and she became involved with First Presbyterian Church, serving as an elder, a deacon and a Stephen Minister. But for Dr. Jack, the need to always have a project continued well into retirement; golf wasn't suppressing the need he always had to do something for those around him.

And this is why Mary Ellen is the other crucial component of this dynamic duo. Without her to take care of the home, the finances, etc., Dr. Jack would not have had time to take on projects, such as starting Volunteers in Medicine, the first free health clinic of its kind in the country.

When asked how the clinic affected their retirement and their life in general, Mary Ellen matter-of-factly said, "Nothing really changed. Jack has always taken on projects, and I provided the stable platform so that he could go out and do his tap dance. (This he used to say before he ever actually took up tap dancing.)"

And so when Jack saw a need in the community for free health care, he got right to it and didn't question whether he'd have the support of Mary Ellen, who says she never had a doubt in her mind VIM would become a reality. She knows the determination of her husband once he's set on something.

VIM was started in 1993 to provide health care for under-served individuals living or working on Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands. It took the support of many to make this dream a reality -- lawmakers, contractors, retired doctors and nurses and last, but not least, Dr. Jack's wife, Mary Ellen.

For nearly 20 years Volunteers in Medicine Hilton Head Island has helped many stay healthy and happy through medical, dental and mental services for those who otherwise would not be able to receive these services due to lack of health insurance. This year alone, VIM will help nearly 14,000 patients through more than 33,000 visits. Today, VIM remains a mainstay throughout the community, an establishment individuals and families remain confident will be there for them -- thanks to a gracious community that provides 100 percent of funding (VIM receives no government support).

On Nov. 17, Dr. Jack will be honored at "Big Band Swing," an event established to honor his contributions for Hilton Head Island through VIM, as well as his love of music. But today, we take a moment to thank one woman behind the scenes who supported her husband's hopes and dreams for nearly 53 years and in the process has positively affected the lives of so many -- Mary Ellen McConnell.

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