Margaret Mary (O'Shaughnessy) Heckler
June 21, 1931 – August 6, 2018
Margaret Mary O’Shaughnessy Heckler, A Champion
Margaret Heckler passed away peacefully of cardiac arrest on Monday morning, surrounded by family in Arlington, VA. She was 87 years old.
The daughter of Irish immigrants, Heckler was born and raised in New York. She attended Dominican Academy, an all girls Catholic High School. She went to Albertus Magnus College. During her college days she was the first woman elected as the Speaker of the House in the Connecticut Student Legislature. She then attended Boston College Law School and was the first woman graduate there.
Heckler rose to fame in public office: as a congresswoman from Massachusetts’ 10th District, as the Secretary of Health and Human Services under Ronald Reagan, and as the first woman US Ambassador to Ireland.
She was an inspiration to all who knew her.
Margaret Heckler started her congressional career in January 1967 in the 90th Congress after a vigorous campaign and a surprising political upset. During the campaign she jumped on a train in her district where she met potential constituents at every stop along the way. Her efforts paid off when she soundly defeated her opponent, Joseph Martin, an incumbent of 42 years and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
As a freshman congresswoman, Margaret walked into a legislature with 524 men and only 11 women. The need for a bi-partisan womens’ group quickly became apparent to her, and so she founded and co-chaired the Congressional Women’s Caucus, which still functions in its original form today.
She served as the top-ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee during her entire congressional career of 16 years, helping those who “had the most to lose” while defending our country. She supported aging centers for Veterans Administration hospitals to care for older vets from the WWII era. She also advocated for the creation of counseling programs for the special needs of Vietnam War veterans.
In addition, she worked successfully to make sure the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) who helped fly supplies to soldiers in WWII, got their full military benefits re-instated after the funds had been cut.
Margaret made many Congressional trips overseas in conjunction with her work on the Veteran’s Affairs Committee and other committees. She felt that it was best to see significant situations with her own eyes.
“I visited Saigon when the war was going on and they had an escort for me from the plane. I saw firsthand the suffering of the people.”
She flew to Cambodia with the Congresswomen’s Caucus in a humanitarian effort to ask the Cambodian President to accept aid for his country’s starving children. The trip was a success. She led the first delegation of Congresswomen to China after it reopened to the west (1978).
Margaret’s best known work in Congress was authoring the Equal Credit Act, which provided women with the ability to have credit cards and own homes for the first time (1974).
In 1983, Ronald Reagan appointed her to his Cabinet as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Her top priorities were confronting the AIDS crisis and addressing issues of minority health.
In 1985, she was chosen to serve as the first woman US Ambassador to Ireland. “She came with a real personal touch that did not exist before”, said someone who worked closely with her. She came from big Irish families on both sides. She felt at home in Ireland.
“She was feisty and fearless,” a co-worker said. “Instead of playing golf, she worked from 8:00am - 5:00 pm, and then came back to the residence and made calls to Washington. She made it a point to visit almost all of the counties in Ireland.”
She invested much of her time supporting women politicians in Ireland. She met with them and was interested in hearing what they had to say.
A close friend gave her an Irish Wolfhound as a welcome present when she first arrived on the Emerald Isle. She named him Jackson O’Toole. He was much loved at the residence in Phoenix Park.
Margaret worked with the Irish Chamber of Commerce to help bring American companies to Ireland. She brought over Microsoft, Anheuser Busch and many others because Ireland was suffering severely from unemployment. Irish young people were leaving the country to find jobs elsewhere, because there were not enough good paying jobs at home. Margaret’s initiative worked.
Her mantra was work hard, study hard and pray hard.
She believed that “you have to look like a girl; think like a man and work like a dog!”
“I have a great sense of destiny,” Margaret said. “I feel like a pawn on a chessboard and I’m a great believer in the Lord’s plan for each of us. When it’s your turn to move, you move.”
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Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle
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Margaret Mary (O'Shaughnessy) Heckler
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August 20, 2018
With her fellow Boston College Law School alumni and members of our university community, we have been mourning the loss of an outspoken and tenacious leader whom we are proud to have known and will miss very dearly.
We are also proud to hold in our Burns Library archives Margaret Heckler's personal papers, which document her service in Congress, as Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Ambassador to Ireland.
From our archives, we share here a photo of Margaret in the latter role at the 1988 Emerald Isle Classic football game in Dublin, with BC President J. Donald Monan, SJ, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ben Briscoe, and Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn.
With warmest wishes to family and friends,
August 11, 2018
Anne Barry Dublin Ireland
Sincere condonlances on the death of your mother.My father Major General JJ Barry and I have spent the evening thinking back on all the memorable encounters with your mother while she was ambassador here. We are greatly saddened by her passing. RIP.
August 10, 2018
Dear Belin, Ali and John,
Your wonderful mother and your entire family were so kind to me. Thanks to Margaret I met Presidents Reagan and George Bush, Sr. in the city I was born in.
Thanks to the faith in Christ she taught you, rest assured that you will see and be with your mother again.
I love all of you. Keith Shaw
August 8, 2018
I was lucky enough to meet Congresswoman Heckler as her Prime nominee to the US Naval Academy in 1967. In an age of political nominations, she conducted a district test which allowed a boy from a low income family to attend Annapolis. I honored the opportunity she gave me by serving two Western Pacific tours as a US Marine Corps officer during Viet Nam. I will always be grateful to this great woman and leader that she was there at that time. My prayers are with her and her family today.
Margaret Mary Heckler (age 87) peacefully passed away on August 6, 2018. She was born June 21, 1931 to John and Bridget O’Shaughnessy in Flushing, New York. Her memories will be cherished by her children Belinda Mulliken, Alison and Mick Heckler-Haensler, John and Kimberly Heckler, 4 grandchildren; and many other relatives and friends. A visitation will be on Friday, August 24th from 5-8 pm at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington, VA. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held on Saturday, August 25th at 10 am at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, DC.