MILWAUKEE — This Milwaukee former alderwoman has seen it all.
"Sixty years ago, Oct. 28, President Kennedy, who was running for election, came by my hometown in northeast Pennsylvania and I watched him,” Larraine McNamara-McGraw said. “I was standing on the corner of Wyoming Avenue and watching him go by in his limousine [...] a convertible Cadillac. "
McNamara-McGraw remembers that day vividly.
"I have my Halloween costume on and I remember someone saying to my mom, ‘He can't be president he's a Catholic.’ And my mother said, ‘There goes the next president of the United States.’"
On Jan. 20, 1961, McNamara-McGraw was 11 years old and selling Girl Scout Cookies when she first heard these words during JFK's inaugural speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you. And ask what you can do for your country.”
“That's what galvanized my whole sense of life,” McNamara-McGraw said. “Those words inspired her to pursue a life of service.
"I was the first Riverwesterner to be an Eastside Alderman," she said.
McNamara-McGraw served Milwaukee's east side 3rd District for seven years and said she loved every minute of it.
"It was a great time," she said.
It's also where she met Wisconsin civil rights leader Vel Philips.
"She was an important figure in my life because I met her when I first ran for alderman in 1989 and I knew her for 30 years,” McNamara-McGraw said. “She was a remarkable woman.”
"Vel had a real awareness of what was going on at a very deep level. She was the kind of person she taught me a lot about being calm in the middle of a storm,” she continued. “She was around four years ago when everything drastically changed. She had this steady center that never lost hope and never gave in. Vel represented generosity and kindness and not to be angry, you know, to be generous, even when people are less than generous.”
“I knew that she knew what was going on and she never lost her cool. She never struck back It's an amazing lesson," McNamara-McGraw said.
Amazing lessons that resonate during the pandemic, racial tension, and the presidential election.
Yet, McNamara-McGraw herself stands alone in sharing her life lesson that we can all learn from.
"I was fired from my first job in Milwaukee after I got married for being pregnant. That galvanized me and I ended up going to law school,” McNamara-McGraw said. “Because I can, I decided that I would never be fired again for being pregnant so that was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Once I had my law degree. I knew that I could do good things with it.”
When It comes to how she is handling the pandemic, she said, "Keeping hopeful, keeping healthy, being connected with people, you know it turns out Zoom isn't so bad. "
In fact, she's the first volunteer to do Zen Buddhist studies with women in the Racine prison through Zoom.
"And I think that's sort of the best part of it is to realize that everything changes and this is a change. This is a big, big change for our whole lives," McNamara-McGraw.
For McNamara-McGraw, hearing JFK's words bring her back to that 11-year-old little girl.
"What I would say is that young children growing up need the voices of good people, to tell them how to live. That's something I feel fortunate about because a lot of really terrible things have happened,” she said. “I was a freshman in high school when JFK was assassinated. I was a freshman in college when Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was a freshman in college when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I remember Malcolm [X] being assassinated. I marched behind Vel Phillips and Father Groppi when I first came to Milwaukee to go to school at Marquette.”
Despite having lived through some of the more notable tragedies in United States history, McNamara-McGraw remains hopeful and optimistic.