McGovern Aide Devoted Life to Helping Others

Posted January 30, 2008 at 4:30pm

In 25 years as executive secretary to former Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), Patricia J. Donovan did more than help with everyday affairs. She baked casseroles for sick colleagues, helped revise speeches and ran fundraisers on the campaign trail.

Friends and colleagues also remember Donovan, who died suddenly of a stroke at her home in Naples, Fla., on Jan. 12 at the age of 71, for fighting tirelessly behind the scenes to improve the lives of those less fortunate.

[IMGCAP(1)]Donovan immersed herself in the world of politics right out of high school, working as a stenographer in the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department, then as secretary to then-Rep. Harold Donohue (D-Mass.) to help make ends meet for her mother and 10 siblings. In 1957, she joined McGovern’s Congressional office as his executive secretary, a position she retained throughout his three terms in the Senate and his 1972 bid for president.

“I think it’s the influence of our parents and their values,” Donovan’s sister, Teresa Edwards, said of Donovan’s commitment to public service. “It’s the combination of that and growing up here in Washington, D.C., where public service is, and especially in those days was, a real honor.”

McGovern said Donovan was “the best all-around staff member I have ever known.”

“I remember once when I was going to raise her pay, she said to me, ‘What about so-and-so, and so-and-so? … I think if there’s a limited amount of funds, you should raise them before you give me a raise,’” McGovern said. “It was the quality of the mission of the office that gave her pride.”

Former colleagues described Donovan as a trusted and well-respected adviser.

“She was the classic old-line executive secretary who, so far as any of us really knew, didn’t really have a life beyond George McGovern,” said Dave Aylward, who worked with Donovan during McGovern’s presidential campaign and later in his Senate office. “Nothing happened in the McGovern operation that didn’t go through or around Pat. She really was an extension of the man.”

Ken Reigner, who worked with Donovan on McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, said Donovan’s loyalty to McGovern was never-ending, even at a recent staff reunion when she continuously offered to help the former Senator as the other guests mingled.

“She was always looking out for Sen. McGovern,” he said.

When McGovern was appointed as the first director of President John F. Kennedy’s Food for Peace program in 1961, Donovan embraced combating world hunger as a lifelong passion.

“She loved that work because it was entirely devoted to reducing hunger in the world, and she thought there was no higher mission than that,” McGovern said.

Edwards and McGovern said a mission trip to India later that year cemented Donovan’s commitment to hunger issues.

“She could barely stand looking at people begging in the streets in the little hovels in which they lived, and I could see day by day that she was deeply moved,” McGovern said. “[Out of everyone on the mission] the one who was most deeply moved by the hunger that we saw was Pat, and she was never quite the same after that.”

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who worked in the Senator’s office in the late 1970s, said Donovan’s commitment to helping others was apparent in both her professional and personal actions.

“This is a woman who had great passion for the issues, but also somebody who wasn’t just concerned with the big things, but with the individual things as well,” he said. “Everyone who worked with her, she treated like they were the most special person in the world.”

When Jim McGovern — no relation to the Senator — started out as an intern, Donovan went the extra mile to make his experience worthwhile.

“If George McGovern was giving a speech, she’d make sure I was included,” he said. “If he was speaking at a college or university in the area, she would make sure I accompanied them. When important people came into the office — from the presidents and prime ministers of foreign countries to Warren Beatty — she would make sure I was there to meet them.”

Over the years, their professional rapport grew into a treasured friendship.

“Every holiday and every birthday she’d send me a card, and not only to me, but to my kids, too,” he said.

Donovan’s commitment to helping others wasn’t limited to the workplace.

While working on Capitol Hill, Donovan befriended a mother and son who lived in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood that she passed through on her walk to work. After learning that the boy had an artistic flair, she arranged for him to take weekend lessons at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

“One day, Pat went by and he was waiting with one of his artworks, and he offered it to her,” Edwards said. “She said, ‘I knew by the way he was talking about it, he wanted his mother to have it.’ So Pat told him, ‘Thank you so much, I really appreciate you offering this to me, but you should really give it to your mother. It’s your first one.’”

Edwards said Donovan, who moved to Naples to care for her sister Fran, rarely talked of her own accomplishments.

“She just did her job and then she took care of everybody else,” Edwards said. “She rarely told anything about herself, and I had to evoke it through specific questions.”

In lieu of flowers, donations in Donovan’s memory may be made to a charity she supported in recent years, The Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, 2126 Alicia St., Fort Myers, FL 33901. The food bank stores and distributes corporate donations to local soup kitchens and shelters.

“[The food bank is] the kind of organization that Food for Peace was trying to implement, to do something that would be well- organized and helpful,” Edwards said. “When I’m hearing myself I realize that I’m talking about my sister Pat, well-organized and helpful.”

A funeral Mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Annunciation, 3810 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Burial will be at Mount Olivet Cemetery, 1300 Bladensburg Road NE.