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Mario Cuomo and Mike Dowling dazzle at Irish America lunch

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If there is a better orator in America than former New York Governor Mario Cuomo I have yet to hear him or her.

And if there is a more extraordinary story of success after tough beginnings among Irish emigrants than Michael Dowling, president and CEO of the huge North Shore-LIJ health system, I have yet to read it.

Put the two together, throw in dynamic new Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Anne Anderson and music legend Judy Collins and you have the recipe for a marvelous afternoon, which is just what we had last week at the Irish America magazine Business 100 luncheon at the Metropolitan Club in New York which honored Dowling this year.

Cuomo may be over 80 now, but the resonant voice, the ability to empathize, the extraordinary insight into the mindset of the emigrants to America’s shore is still unparalleled.

I first heard him speak in 1984 at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco. I was a raw, wet behind the ears young immigrant myself at the time.

Cuomo’s speech about his parents, who came to America, uneducated, lost their first child and scraped a living for years to care for their family was widely considered the best ever speech on the topic. It bowled me over.

This is the segment about his father. “I watched a small man with thick calluses on both hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example. I learned about our kind of democracy from my father. …“

It is a democracy that elected not only the son of those penniless immigrant parents to the highest office in New York State, but their grandson too, current governor Andrew Cuomo.

I think it still is an incredible speech, and Cuomo has not lost his fastball all these years later as he gave a magnificent tribute to Dowling, the Knocaderry, Co. Limerick native who was Cuomo’s health commissioner and social services commissioner for 12 years during his terms in office.

Cuomo called on Dowling to be the national spokesman on health for this administration, no easy task given how badly they screwed up over Obamacare.  It would take a man of Dowling’s genius to rescue them now.

For his part Dowling’s poor Limerick background puts Frank McCourt in the ha’penny place. He grew up on a tiny farm, his father died young and his mother was deaf.

From age 15 or so he was the breadwinner, working jobs in Britain and eventually here where he grabbed the American dream with both hands, worked and studied incredibly long hours and ended up a professor of social policy at Fordham University.

Along the way he encountered Cuomo, who hired him despite the lack of Harvard degrees or fancy background. Dowling was, by all accounts, the best health commissioner and also social services commissioner in decades.

Nowadays Dowling runs North Shore-LIJ, the third largest hospital chain in the U.S. with 46,000 employees. But he has never forgotten his humble immigrant roots. He spends as much time with the janitor as the doctors, he says proudly, and can often learn more from them than the highly paid professionals.

Anderson added to the occasion as a bright new face of Ireland in America, an accomplished woman who has put teeth into the Irish contribution to the immigration reform debate.

Also adding to the atmosphere was a wonderful off-the-cuff performance by music legend Judy Collins who sang a new Irish ballad she recently composed. Look for her PBS Special from Dromoland Castle around March 17 for a wonderful evening.

All in all an afternoon to remember.

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