An Irish American woman who suffered a severe brain injury while on vacation in Ireland has graduated with a master’s degree ate age 77. She speaks to MOLLY MULDOON about her studies, family, and the many obstacles she has overcome.
Sunday has always been a day of worship for Margaret Reilly from Bronxville, New York. But the devout Irish American grandmother prepared for a different type of ceremony on a recent Sunday in May, when the 77-year-old walked across the stage in Avery Fisher Hall in New York to collect her master’s degree from Pace University -- over six decades after graduating from Commerce High School in Yonkers.
“I am ready to start using my credentials,” the grandmother told the Irish Voice recently. “I am not going to work for money. I have been volunteering for the last 15 years and I have been well-trained,” she added.
As if her master’s degree was not enough, Reilly also graduated with a bachelor's degree from SUNY Empire State University earlier this month. “It’s been something I have wanted to do all my life,” she reflects.
Fulfilling her life-long goal comes after raising five kids, prospering in a long career as a woman and children’s rights advocate and surviving a near fatal brain injury in Ireland.
Reilly had originally put her college aspirations on hold as a young teenager when her Irish-born father fell ill. “My father was from Killorglin, Co. Kerry, the place famous for Puck Fair,” Reilly said.
A soldier in the Irish Army, her father decided to finish his term and move to the U.S. after Michael Collins was killed. “When he arrived the signs were up saying ‘No Irish Need Apply,” Reilly recalls.
But her father was fortunate to have a contact and landed a job with Daniel Reeves, who owned grocery stores all over the city.
The Irishman soon established his own grocery store, the place where his daughter would meet her future husband, Irishman Francis P. "Frank" Reilly.
“I was pursued,” laughs Reilly. “He was very handsome; my children got his good looks and his talent.” “Frank came over with another friend from Ireland and worked in General Motors. They came into the store looking for my father as they heard he was Irish too,” says Reilly adding. “He used to call them the Dublin Jackeens!”
In 1958, Margaret and Frank were married and in the five years that followed they had five children, (two sets of twins followed by a daughter), which she considers a “good Irish family.”
“Between being Irish and being Catholic we made a very good life for ourselves, very comfortable and loving,” Reilly says.
Having worked since the age of 17, Reilly was eager to return to the workforce. Once her brood was off to school, she began volunteering as a crossing guard for a short while before taking a job with the county Probation Department in 1969.
Passing her civil service exams, she quickly climbed the ladder and against the odds during the women’s movement. By the mid-1970s, she had become the first woman promoted to investigation and enforcement officer in the Office of Child Support Services.
“She only had a high school degree. They offered some job training that led to a master’s degree. She fought for the training in 1979,” recalls Paul Reilly, her eldest son.
As part of her senior role in the Office of Child Support Services, she continued studying and completed the requirements for a master’s degree from Pace University. However, she couldn’t graduate because she lacked an undergraduate qualification.
Pace University wrote her a letter saying that once she got her undergraduate qualification, the master’s would be hers.
But once more she put her college dreams on hold and decided to retire to care for her sick husband. By the time she retired, she was a supervisor of the Court Liaison Team with a staff of 14.
Soon afterwards, Reilly began volunteering with the National Coalition for Family Justice. But a freak accident during her vacation to Ireland in 1997 would threaten everything she had worked to achieve.
While visiting relatives in Ireland, Reilly and her husband Frank were in a restaurant beside Dublin Castle when she decided to use the rest room while her husband paid the bill. Slipping on a freshly mopped marble stairs, the 77-year-old still vividly recalls the incident that landed her in coma for over a week.
“I remember falling and something caught my foot.” Reilly recalls. “I felt someone picking me up and I was weak and couldn’t move.” Reilly was suffering from a cerebral hemorrhage and was rushed to Beaumont Hospital where they removed a coin sized piece of her brain. Once she came out of an eight-day coma, she remained in intensive care for six weeks.
“It really was a miracle,” recalls her son Paul, who caught the first plane to Ireland to be by his mother’s side. “The distance made it almost unbearable,” he said.
After suffering a major brain trauma, her rehabilitation would prove to be a lengthy process. “Everybody was fearful,” recalls the grandmother who was determined to make a full recovery. “I had to get better, I had things that I had to do, I was volunteering.”
“Truthfully, the family was so close so I was never really alone,” says Reilly. “I have got the most wonderful grandchildren in the world. There are no arguments. It is a beautiful thing to see. It is like looking at a beautiful picture. It is a blessing.”
Constantly monitoring the tenacious woman’s progress, her neurologist advised her to keep her mind active. So in 2006, aged 72, she decided to enroll in SUNY Empire State University to attain her bachelor’s degree, which would later see her attain her master’s.
“That was part of the therapy,” says Paul Reilly. “Finally after all this time she was ecstatic. She
said, ‘Now I am going to call Pace and see if they would give me my master's degree!’
“The dean of Pace University recognized it was an inspirational story.”
Attaining her bachelor’s and master’s degrees within two weeks seems like a fitting achievement for the lady whose grandchildren call her Wonder Woman.
“Persevere and keep going,” is the grandmother’s advice for when you fall on hard times.
Of course, she says the strength garnered from her family has helped her at every step.
“I just think we are like most Irish families. We stay together, we help one another come hell or high water, we are united and God is good to us.”
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