June 18, 2000
By Kevin McCullen
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer
LONGMONT - John Maher looks at his two children and he likes the father that a disease has helped him become.
Sandwiched between his 9-year-old son, Sean, and 7-year-old daughter, Sheila, Maher laughed as he stiffly tried to catch a ball the two tossed just over his outstretched hands. The orthotic braces strapped to his legs were the only outward physical clue that Maher has a progressive form of multiple sclerosis, a disease that has crippled his body but enriched his life.
Maher, 43, is the National MS Father of the Year, the first Coloradan to receive the award in its 49-year history. Maher, his wife, Evelyn, and Sean and Sheila will make a trip this year to Washington to meet President Clinton.
"As weird as it sounds, MS has been a gift from God. I firmly believe God does not put you through more than you can bear," Maher said. "MS is the best thing that's happened to me, and my family."
Seven years ago, Maher did not have time for a ball game of "Monkey in the Middle" with his children. He did not have time to volunteer daily in their classrooms or to become a deacon and children's activity leader as he now is in Longmont's Central Presbyterian Church.
The weekly hours Maher volunteers for Longmont's food bank, the Outreach United Resource Center, would have been unthinkable to him during the 16-hour workdays he spent as a purchasing agent for a steel company in Arizona during the early 1990s.
Twice monthly, Maher helps lead meetings of the Longmont MS chapter. He also counsels people newly diagnosed with the disease, said Sheila Hagaman, client program coordinator for the Northern Colorado MS chapter.
"John is a role model. He has a way of living with his MS that you forget he has it," she said.
Roger Peck, who has MS, and his wife, Sue, credit Maher's personality for strengthening the support group, keeping it from becoming what the Pecks call a "whine session."
"John has a great influence on people. He's one of the reasons my husband keeps going back because he is so upbeat," Sue Peck said. "Once you learn you have the disease, you get a wake-up call in life."
Maher's call came nearly eight years ago.
The Mahers lived in Tucson, where Evelyn and John met after he finished a stint in the Air Force. A driven, self-described "Type A personality and jerk," Maher thrived on being his company's problem-solver.
Rising every day at 4 a.m. and coming home at 7 p.m., Maher would nod to his wife and children at dinner before retreating to his home office to continue working. Some nights, Evelyn found him asleep at his computer at 1 a.m.
"I was chasing the golden carrot, and I didn't know what for. Work was all I knew," Maher said. "I knew I had two cute kids, but that was all I knew. I didn't really know them."
But in summer 1992, Maher found himself forgetting details. Writing, always easy for him, became an ordeal. He tripped easily and became breathless after walking a flight of stairs.
Waiting one day to cross the Mexican border at Nogales to visit a steel plant, Maher repeatedly bumped the car in front of him because his foot could not hold the brake pedal.
He resisted seeing his doctor for months. In November 1992, a neurologist confirmed another doctor's suspicions: Maher had MS.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that causes the body's immune system to attack cells called myelin, which make up the sheath covering nerves. The cause of the disease is unknown and symptoms range from loss of muscle control to fatigue and in some cases, blindness or paralysis.
One in every 800 Coloradans has MS. There is no known cure. The disease is treated with drugs to limit the impact of symptoms. But it can go into remission for some patients.
At first, Maher refused to slow down. He was pressured to keep up his workload even as his cognitive skills continued to diminish.
"I was so stubborn. I guess it's the curse of the Irish," he said. "I was working then just to survive."
Eventually, his doctor and neurologist told him they no longer would care for him, and his wife threatened to leave him unless he quit. In spring 1994, Maher finally listened.
"I felt I was losing everything, but I had to wake up. I was losing my family," he said.
Gradually, their lives changed. John began to find comfort in scripture. He also enrolled in a federally funded vocational retraining and rehabilitation program in Arizona, where he began to realize "that there was more to life than his old corporate world," Evelyn said.
He quit his job in spring 1994.
Social Security disability makes up for some of the lost income. Although it doesn't come close to John's former salary, the Mahers say they are doing fine financially.
In 1995, Evelyn was able to transfer with IBM to Boulder County, and the family moved to Longmont. They found Central Presbyterian Church. And Maher discovered his children.
Sean and John are learning to play the guitar, and Sheila recently got a keyboard. Maher helps with their youth sports programs, and on Wednesday nights helps lead a children's program at his church.
"Anything you give them, you get back tenfold," Maher said. "It's unconditional with kids."
Maher learned patience. He also was blunt with his children about his MS, and in turn they respect the accommodations Maher must make daily to his condition.
He naps nearly every afternoon to conserve his energy. Sean and Sheila also know that Maher occasionally needs a day off "and the kids understand that. Kids take in as much as they want to know and when they've had enough, they tell you," he said.
John regularly spends mornings in Sheila and Sean's classrooms at Mountain View Elementary. He was a computer tutor in Sean's third-grade classroom this year, while he helped classmates of Sheila's with their reading.
"My Dad helps us out with everything," Sean said.
Three years ago, Maher also extended a hand to others. He spends nearly every Friday morning filling food orders for clients at the OUR Center in Longmont, which provides about 325,000 pounds of groceries annually to about 6,000 households.
His business experience and humanity are assets, said Edwina Salazar Waldrip, executive director.
"It is wonderful having someone like John because of his energy and spirit to give. He's a very forthright volunteer for us," Waldrip said.
Two Tuesday evenings each month are devoted to the Longmont MS chapter. Maher counsels people newly diagnosed with MS, imploring them to look past the negatives of the disease.
Still, there are daily reminders of MS. He has hand controls on his Jeep Wagoneer to allow him to drive, and he uses a cane to help him walk. He feels constant pain, but never complains in front of his children.
"I admire him because of his patience and understanding with our children, and I respect him because I can only guess at the pain he deals with on a daily basis," Evelyn Maher said. "Without living it, none of us really knows how it feels."
Maher's contributions to his family and community earned him the National MS Father of the Year award. He and his family are looking forward to meeting Clinton, but a conversation with the president will never supplant the joy Maher felt when he read the letters his son and daughter wrote in his support.
"Even though he can't run or jump, he can still have fun with me," Sean wrote. "He loves being around us, and that's the good thing. He doesn't ever let MS bother him. He's my hero!"
He talks little of the future, in part because he does not know the course his MS will take.
"I never think it'll be that bad, as long as I can still think," Maher said, watching his children play in the backyard. "A part of me is anxious. I want to make sure I tell the kids I'll be there for them. I keep thinking of things I want to teach them, like their Irish heritage. I want to instill in them a love of music.
"I have faith in God and I have so many blessings in my life. I try to keep things on a positive note, so my kids realize there are choices. You can make the choice to be miserable or you can make the choice to be happy. I'm a happier person now."
Contact Kevin McCullen at (303) 442-8729 or mccullenk@RockyMountainNews.com.
June 18, 2000