Orson Welles, a man now considered one of the greatest figures of the 20th century was asked on the Dick Cavett show which person of the cadre of great figures he had known in his life stood out the most of all. The answer was a surprising one. Not Churchill, Roosevelt, Hemingway, or any of the memorable names from the past. No. Instead, he answered that it was a woman named Cornelia Lunt, whom he knew as a younger man when she was in her middle 90's. She had the greatest impact of them all.
She was the world's greatest raconteur, and would invite you over to her home, sit on a small little stool and lend you a big chair. "She was one of the most remarkable people I ever knew," Welles said, "she was as great certainly as Churchill or Roosevelt or even George Marshall."
Mary Moriarty Galvani, who died on Friday at the ripe old age of 96, was one of those truly great figures. She was raised in Shakopee, Minnesota and was one of five great kids who would all go on to serve in some capacity in World War II. Her father was an estimable judge whose name was well known across Minnesota. At the age of 7, she became deathly ill with pneumonia. The doctors feared that the disease would mean the end for Mary Galvani, but as she proved time in and time out throughout her life, it would take a hell of a lot more to stop her. She learned two valuable lessons that she would live by through that experience. One, to always treat those around you as if they were kings and queens. The second: that you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The combination was deadly and had those she met bedazzled and gleaming till the end.
Although her youth was impressive, Mary was one of those rarest of flowers that bloom late. A scientist at a time when few women attempted the feat, Mary Moriarty Galvani constantly found herself the sole woman in an environment filled with gentlemen. At a plant in Indiana she met her late beloved husband Vincent Galvani, who would go on to develop the trigger for the atomic bomb. However like many women in the 50's she would retire to devote herself solely to the raising of her three beautiful children. But not content with retirement, Mary Galvani decided when her last child was 14 to once again make a proverbial splash onto the scientific scene.
She applied for a high level position in the water plant in 1967as a response to an ad she had seen in a "Help Wanted: Male" classified advertisement. When asked by the St Paul Pioneer Press why she had made the gutsy decision to enter an all male department in her twilight years she smiled and said confidently, "It didn't say women need not apply. So I did." When she walked into the water department for the first time, she was confronted with beady-eyed stares and vicious glances, but when she finally begrudgingly retired, those same men were struck with grief. While there, she patented a process and media for the speciation of strep, which became a much-cited patent in the investigation of e-coli contamination, and has led to the saving of many lives. She had made feminists out of sexists, and she did it without raising her voice, lecturing them, complaining to her supervisors and more remarkably, did it with a smile on her face and a strong right hook ready just in case they didn't evolve
Mary Moriarty Galvani transformed from "one of the guys" to the world's greatest grandmother in 1984 when she was called to Southampton to help her youngest daughter raise a difficult new baby. The one condition her daughter told her: "Leave the cigarettes in Minnesota." Although she had smoked for more than 50 years, she quit and renewed, she moved to New York to take on the role of matriarch to the third generation. Mary Galvani, like an expensive wine, got better with age. Her stories became richer, her delivery more fine tuned and her effect dramatic. While at the end she at times needed a walker to maneuver herself, the woman could outrun most people 30 years younger, and not as a consequence of hordes of vitamins or years of yoga, just from an indomitable spirit that plowed on.
Although I'm only 22-years-old, I've been blessed with an opportunity to meet some of the truly great figures of the 21st century; but none of them compare to Mary Galvani. In fact not a single one of them comes even come close. At the age of 94 she was diagnosed with dementia, the unstoppable plague that is wreaking havoc on our elderly loved ones and sadly is still incurable. She didn't panic; she didn't cry. All she did was to embrace it fully and to take it on as she had all the challenges of her life: with unprotected optimism, strong resolve and a zest for life.
Forced to move to the 80th street residence, it became her new palace, the new employees her father's old confidants, and the friends, new Dukes and duchesses. When she died on Friday from an aneurism that burst while she was surrounded by her family, the entire residence insisted on coming to visit this mountain of a woman. When asked why everyone from the chefs, to the janitors, to the other residents all insisted on visiting this woman, one mid 30's aide on the third floor said, "We are here because we are hoping to get just one more story, just one more chance to hear something from this woman." I said staring at this hopeful and optimistic woman, "you realize that she is no longer with us, right?" And the woman looked at me and smiled, "Mary Moriarty Galvani will never die." I smiled thinking back to what Welles had said about Cornelia Lunt and I too realized that one of the greats had passed. Perhaps, not a famous name, but an indelible figure that neither I, nor anyone who came across will soon forget.