Remembering Kate FitzGerald
By Dr. Garret FitzGerald, 2014 Healthcare and Life Sciences 50 Keynote Speaker
December / January 2015
Kate FitzGerald died peacefully on August 4, at home in Philadelphia with her family.
Born to Catherine and Niall O’Connor on December 14, 1949, Kate grew up in Dublin; she attended Rathnew, studying history and archaeology at UCD.
A gifted artist, she had initially enrolled in the College of Art, and retained her love of art, her creativity and her sense of democratic insurgency throughout her life. Her humor, intelligence and utter selflessness made for lifelong friends across the world.
Kate and I married and she became a mother while we were still students. She quickly learned that the Ireland of the 1960s made little accommodation for young families. But ever practical, she made a home for her impecunious family by co-founding a daycare center that lasts to this day in Donnybrook, developing a hundred ways to cook and prepare mincemeat and wielding a glue gun and a paintbrush with an imagination and determination that would rival Martha Stewart. These talents she sustained as the family moved to London, Nashville, Dublin, Philadelphia and Rome.
In London, now with two children, John and Genevieve, Kate endured hospital accommodation in the immediate vicinity of Wormwood Scrubs. She used humor as an antidote to the bleak environment and worked at various jobs. The most interesting of these was hiring strippers to perform at lunchtime in a wine bar. She enjoyed backstage chats with the girls as they knitted for their babies, even as cabs kept the engine running to take them to their next engagement.
Moving to Nashville, but not before she had voted against Margaret Thatcher’s first election, Kate felt at first that she had landed on the moon. However, she soon came to appreciate the hospitality, friendliness and ease of the environment as her third child, Hugo, joined the family, and she made lasting friends.
Unable to counter my homing gene, Kate sustained and supported me during a brief but bruising return to Dublin in the early 90s. Next we moved to Wayne, a suburb of Philadelphia, where she worked in the gardening program at Shipley School and led her students to multiple awards at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Then she embarked on a long career working in the West Philadelphia High School, teaching English and History, and infusing her pupils, often from very deprived backgrounds, with her love of history and fluency in English. She bought school supplies and buckets to catch leaking rainwater, argued and advocated for her students in court and attended too many of their funerals. Her work attracted awards from the city, the respect of her colleagues and, best of all, the love of her pupils.
With our children grown, Kate had the opportunity to return to her art, to travel widely and to spend time with time in our apartment in Rome. There on her 60th birthday, friends, including classmates from Rathnew, traveled from 11 countries to celebrate. Amongst those was the poet Billy Collins, who remembers her with the verses below.
She took great pride in our children and what wonderful parents John and Genevieve were, and how they and Hugo had such supporting partners, Missy, Andrew and Jen. Her grandchildren, Ben and Madeleine DeLemos and Matias and Zoe FitzGerald, were her special joy and kept her happy, laughing and at peace during her final illness.
Kate had such a love of animals that she was known in the family as Madame Noah. She fed birds in winter, supported her rescue dogs, Scotty and Savannah, and her cats, Suki, Spooky, Max, Stella and Mimi to longevity. She marveled at the deer, groundhogs, bees, ducks, squirrels, woodpeckers and owls that visited her flower filled garden.
Kate FitzGerald was a selfless person, endowed with artistic, culinary, pedagogic and horticultural talent, devoted to her family and to her pupils, for whom she worked tirelessly. As one of her friends said of her, “She was an adorable person with a rebel attitude.”
Besides her immediate family, Kate is survived by her sisters Rose Levine and Jane Sheeran and her brothers Patrick, Francis and Johnnie O’Connor.
A long table in a roof garden,
platters of tomatoes, meats, cheeses,
then bowls of fruit, berries, cookies with jam,
and glasses everywhere, a glassy forest of wine bottles,
all enclosed in latticed sunlight,
a geometry of other roofs spread across the view.
But the deeper reason the six of us
stretched lunch into early evening
was the six of us, one disappearing
every now and then down the narrow stairs
to hoist more bottles of red and white
so we could keep toasting life under the sun.
Kate, who just stepped away,
an empty chair under a Roman sky,
you who encouraged us to carpe that long diem,
who knew then that you would lead the way?
Forgive us now for staying so long,
and we will forgive you for leaving too soon.
– Billy Collins