by Henry Lane Hull
Over the centuries Virginia has been the home to many illustrious Americans, many of whom have been natives and others who have adopted the Old Dominion as the place where they were most happy. Margaret Heckler falls into that second category.
Margaret was born in New York City in 1931. After graduating from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., she entered Boston College Law School, after which she stayed in Massachusetts and began practicing law and raising her family. She became active in Republican politics, which led her in 1966 to challenge Congressman Joseph W. Martin, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, for the Republican nomination in the primary election. Surprisingly, she won both the primary and the general election, and continued winning for seven more terms, until redistricting caused her to lose in 1982. When she entered Congress, she was one of only 11 women in the House.
After her congressional service President Reagan nominated her to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. In that capacity she made great contributions in calling attention to the disparity of health care among black citizens and other minorities versus the white population. She advocated greater funding to improve the condition of minority health care and set the stage for what later became The Office of Minority Health.
Equally notable was her benchmark leadership in calling attention to the burgeoning AIDS/HIV epidemic, which she wanted addressed aggressively. In both of these initiatives Margaret was inspired and directed by her deep religious faith. She was a totally committed Christian, who saw her role as a worker in the Lord’s vineyard, adhering to biblical mandates in service to others.
When she left the H.H.S. Department she entered another career, this time as a diplomat serving for almost four years as ambassador to Ireland. She joked that with a maiden name like O’Shaughnessy she was well qualified for the position. In Ireland she became greatly beloved by the population, involved in numerous ventures promoting Irish business and helping promote worthy causes.
When Margaret left Congress she did not return to Massachusetts, but settled in Northern Virginia. After her ambassadorship ended, she returned to Arlington and became an active participant in local events. She immersed herself in the lore of Virginia and quickly came to be totally at home in the Old Dominion.
Always an acute observer of the political scene, she enjoyed sharing her thoughts with pithy remarks that cut to the heart of any matter under discussion. She offered astute, comments on elections with the sagacity of a veteran newscaster. Personally, she was committed to individual service and hands-on activity to make the world the better place she wanted it to be.
I came to know Margaret shortly after her return from Ireland. Her mind was the repository of an encyclopedia of knowledge and she could discourse on an extraordinarily wide gamut of subjects. She was also a lifetime learner, attending lectures and meetings that covered topics with which she was not yet as familiar as she wished to be. After a presentation she could be counted upon to ask probing questions or make prescient remarks that further enlightened those present.
Margaret was like a comet, arriving on the scene with powerful energy, enlightening those present and moving on to share her thoughts with the next group. She found pleasure in helping people to see through difficult and complex situations, knowing that she was doing her part to spread allegiance to the ideals that had formed her life.
In the last years Margaret began walking with a cane and showed signs of slowing physically, but she retained her energetic spirit, always ready to plunge into a lively discussion.
Earlier this month Margaret died here in her beloved and adopted Old Dominion at the age of 87. She was a truly good person, who used her manifold talents and accomplishments to make the lives of others more fulfilling and enriching, whether at a national level or one-on-one with an individual. The Commonwealth was enhanced by her presence among us.
Margaret Mary O’Shaughnessy Heckler, June 21, 1931 – August 6, 2018. R.I.P.