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JFK encounter proved inspiration to Liberia RPCV Shaun McNally
JFK encounter proved inspiration to Liberia RPCV Shaun McNally
JFK encounter proved inspiration to McNally
2nd Congressional District Democratic primary
By BRIAN LYMAN
NORWICH -- John F. Kennedy toured western Connecticut in the fall of 1962 to help Democrats in the mid-term congressional elections.
Four-year-old Shaun McNally waited with his father in one of the crowds.
"I don't remember this the way (my father) does, but he tells the story that I was on his shoulder and he was trying to reach out to shake John Kennedy's hand," he said. "Security almost tackled us."
That was the young McNally's first encounter with politics, and he credits Kennedy -- along with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. -- for getting him interested.
"They imprinted on me a real desire to try to use at least part of my life for public service," McNally said. "It's the thing I tend to keep gravitating to."
Sometimes it's in defiance of his own Democratic party. He forced Tuesday's Democratic 2nd Congressional District primary against James Sullivan, who has the party endorsement. The winner faces U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District, in November.
The oldest of six children, McNally's family moved from Derby to Greeneville in 1962. "It was a working-class neighborhood, and nobody had a lot of money," he said. "But you grew up in a neighborhood where you never really knew how much money you didn't have."
His father was a food inspector who moonlighted at A&P during the Christmas season to buy the family presents. His mother, who died of cancer in 1982, was a nurse at Uncas-On-Thames Hospital.
"She was someone who, with grace and dignity, fought her own battles while giving comfort to others," McNally said. "She was a real inspiration to me and lots of other people."
Despite knowing "great kids" in the neighborhood, McNally said he didn't start thinking of being a part of a larger community until he got to Norwich Free Academy. College, he said, did not cross his mind until his NFA friends put the idea in his head.
"My high school friends became my lifelong friends," McNally said. "Those young people came from families where the expectation was to go to college and find the best school you can."
McNally put himself through the University of Connecticut, pumping gas and working as a pool subcontractor, a residential assistant and a teacher's aide. He also volunteered at then-Rep. Christopher Dodd's office, answering phones and writing letters.
He once drafted a letter from Dodd to Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Caspar Weinberger, showing the congressman's support of a grant for an educational institution.
"I was so nervous, thinking I was writing a letter to Cap Weinberger, and that that letter could make the difference on whether this $10,000 grant happened," he said. "I filled up a whole waste paper basket of reject letters."
McNally later worked on Dodd's 1980 Senate campaign, as a "special groups" coordinator with constituencies considered natural supporters of Dodd. He called that a learning experience.
"Politics was really about connecting to people, it's about relationships, it's about speaking about things that matter," he said. "And that's what it should be."
He became an aide to U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-2nd District, the following year, but began to feel burned out.
"When you're young, you want a lot of experience, you want change," he said. "Peace Corps had been something I thought of and talked about, even in college."
He entered the program and spent two years in rural Liberia. Shoveling irrigation channels, he helped build 26 fisheries in a dozen villages. One was in a leper colony.
The villagers "worked hard, had great spirit and were so proud," he said. "Those ponds were probably the best for me to be doing. Because it was a great sense of accomplishment."
Returning to Connecticut, McNally worked as a grant writer for Thames Valley Council for Community Action, and assisted in the 1985 municipal elections in Norwich.
The next year, he bucked the party and ran against the nominee for the 46th District seat.
"I'd grown up in this community and I thought I could serve it well," he said. "I've never been one who thinks one is qualified by one's place in a pecking order. I believe in a meritocracy."
McNally won the primary and faced off against Republican incumbent Peter Cuprak, his next-door neighbor on Town Street. Cuprak said he can't remember the issues.
"He was a Democrat, I was a Republican," he said. "And that was about it. That was about the issue."
The challenger won a sometimes ugly campaign. McNally said he regrets a piece of mail attached to his campaign; a senior citizen was pictured under the headline "To Eat or Not To Eat?" with criticism of Cuprak's record.
But the men are friends, and Cuprak has no hard feelings. He frequently passes McNally when he's out campaigning on the road.
"I stop and holler at him, 'Hey Shaun, why don't you get a job?'" Cuprak said. "I'm just jabbing at him."
McNally spent three terms in the Legislature, making his name as a Democrat who criticized excessive spending and would cross the aisle to vote with Republicans.
"He was a nice enough guy," said state Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, who served in the Assembly with him, but who has endorsed Jim Sullivan. "But his political philosophy was very different than mine."
McNally helped create the Connecticut Higher Education Savings Bond, and voted for the income tax, after spending controls were put in place.
He announced in 1990 he would not seek a fourth term, and returned to the private sector. Until resigning to run for Congress, he had been the Connecticut Business & Industry Association public affairs director.
In 2002, he had briefly entered the race for the 2002 Democratic nomination in the 2nd District, dropping out after the Sept. 11 attacks.
McNally said he'll keep his options open should he lose, either Tuesday or in November.
"What this election has done for me is it's rekindled the fire for me to be in public service," he said. "This place can make an impact. But this is a big world, and there are other places where I can make an impact."