By Marie Donovan
LOWELL -- Not many people can boast of having an accomplished musician write a song for them. Mary Jo Leahey joined that club in 2009, when composer James Hosay wrote the score to "Reminiscent Rhapsody New York 1932" for her.
Leahey, then 93, got to enjoy the world-premiere performance of the piece, which incorporates elements of the classical compositions and Gershwin-style showtunes that she most loved, by students in the UMass Lowell Mary Jo Leahey Symphonic Band Camp, which she founded in 1997.
"I was so pleased she was present for that. I had the score autographed by the composer," said Deb Huber, the camp's executive director, who commissioned the piece to honor Leahey for her generosity to the camp's thousands of students over the years.
Leahey, a Lowell native who gave up a potential career as a Hollywood actress to marry the late ophthalmologist Brendan Leahey and raise a family here, died Sunday in Florida. She was 95.
"She always loved music and felt the public-school systems and colleges didn't offer enough opportunities for students to pursue that field," said Leahey's son, Lowell attorney George Leahey. "The band camp gives high-school students exposure to outstanding conductors and professionals. It's marvelous to hear how they all blend together at the end of just one week together for the annual concert."
Hosay, who has served as chief staff arranger and composer for the Army and has written scores for presidents and foreign heads of state, has also dedicated another composition to Leahey, "Sounds of Courage," based on the life of Amelia Earhart.
Born in Lowell on Jan. 27, 1916, Leahey graduated from Lowell High School and earned a bachelor's degree in music from the former Lowell State Teachers College, which is now a part of UMass Lowell.
Her generosity to UMass Lowell over the years went well beyond funding band camp, which draws talented high-school musicians from across New England, as well as some international students. Leahey is one of just 11 university alums inducted into the Circle of Distinction for their extraordinary financial support of the school, which in her case extended to the Chancellor Martin T. Meehan Educational Excellence Fund for student scholarships, the university's Center for the Arts and the UMass Lowell String Project.
"Mary Jo was a very special, really beautiful person," Meehan said. "I met with her regularly. Her generosity made a tremendous difference and continues to provide for the educational experience of young people from diverse backgrounds. It's a wonderful legacy."
While she was a college student, Leahey performed in summer-stock theater productions in New England and New York. A chance meeting with one of the Marx Brothers led to a screen test for the movies and multiyear contract offers from both 20th Century Fox and MGM Studios.
Leahey had other plans, though. She passed it all up to marry the love of her life, ophthalmologist Brendan Leahey, who in 1938 performed the first successful corneal transplant.
"My mother would sometimes take movies of the surgeries so he could watch his own techniques and perfect them," recalled her son George.
Leahey most definitely had the gift of gab, according to her son and her nephew, Jim O'Donnell.
"She was beloved by her immediate and extended family. She was very generous and kind and was always interested in what you were doing and that extended through multiple generations. She would always ask about what your children and your children's children were doing, too," said O'Donnell, co-director of the O'Donnell Funeral Home in Lowell, which was founded by Leahey's grandfather.
"She loved to converse. She could work a room beautifully," said her son. "She never went on the Internet because she would much rather talk to you on the telephone. She would recount a conversation to you in absolute detail, so if the conversation took 16 minutes originally, it would take 16 minutes to recount it again. That was from her acting days."
Leahey pursued philanthropic opportunities with zest in her later years, particularly after her husband died in 1992.
When her grandson, Brent, succumbed to cancer in 1996 at the age of 30, she made a gift in his honor to his alma mater, Georgetown University, where two of her sons and four of her other five grandchildren also went to school, some for both undergraduate and professional degrees.
Like her generosity to UMass Lowell, Leahey maintained a good friendship with Georgetown over the years and was honored with that university's 1789 Society Award for her contributions toward financial aid for students and ophthalmology and cancer research at its medical school.
A former director of the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, Leahey was honored with the UMass Lowell Distinguished Alumni Award in 1997 and was awarded an Honorary Degree with a Doctor of Humane Letters from the university in 2008. She was also named Woman of the Year by Girls Inc. in 2005.