Foundation for Children with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

When Civitan members visit the Civitan International Research Center at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, they are impressed by the soaring atrium with colorful flag banners, the Wall of Honor that recognizes the Center's many benefactors, the dedicated scientists and staff members, the well-equipped laboratories, and the tasteful but efficient offices and meeting rooms. However, very few know the real story behind the Research Center.

In the beginning...

 That story starts in 1942 when Baltimore, Maryland, residents Tom and Mary McNulty welcomed their newborn son, Tommy. Like most new parents, they were thrilled with Tommy and carefully watched for his progress. But, when Tommy was about three months old, Mary was concerned about his development. He was somewhat listless and could not hold his head up. His forehead was broad and flat and his eyes had an almond shape.

 Mary took Tommy to their family physician and shared her concerns. He examined the baby carefully and asked Mary to call Tom to join them so they could discuss his findings. They all sat in the doctor's office and he told them Tommy had mongolism, the common term at that time for Down syndrome. In Tom's words, the doctor said, "He'll never walk or talk and won't be able to care for himself. My advice is to put him in an institution and forget about him; otherwise, he'll break your heart."

 Tom and Mary were devastated. In an instant, the hopes and dreams they had for their little son were crushed. But, they refused to accept the doctor's advice. They knew they could do more for him than any institution could.

 So, they took Tommy home, loved him deeply and worked with him endlessly. To their joy, he did learn to walk and talk; he gradually started to feed himself and developed into a quite gregarious little boy. He learned more slowly than most children did, to be sure, but he kept making steady progress.

 But, by the time Tommy reached school age, Tom and Mary realized they had done about as much for him as they could by themselves. Tom met with the superintendent of the Baltimore schools and inquired about special programs for children like Tommy. The superintendent was embarrassed to say that they really couldn't help. Tom asked, "Don't you have teachers who are trained to work with them?" Again, the superintendent shook his head and expressed regret. Then Tom had an idea and proposed an offer. "If I raise money for scholarships, would you use it to get training for some of your teachers to help Tommy and children like him?"

 The superintendent was overwhelmed and said, "Mr. McNulty, that would be wonderful! We would certainly take advantage of your help to get special training."

 Tom McNulty set out on a crusade. He and young Tommy visited many Baltimore organizations and asked them to contribute to his scholarship fund. They came to the Baltimore Civitan Club and Tom again told his story and asked for their help. The Civitans were so impressed with Tom and delighted with Tommy, that they not only agreed to give them some money, they also invited Tom to join their club.

 So, Tom McNulty's crusade became the Baltimore Civitans' crusade and his passion became their passion. They started a tax¬≠exempt foundation and soon were joined by other Civitan clubs in the Chesapeake District. The Civitans were quite successful at raising funds and provided numerous scholarships. Early on, they even contributed $5,000 to Johns Hopkins University to support research related to Down syndrome.

 By 1951, Dr. Courtney Shropshire, the Birmingham physician who founded Civitan International, had retired and was visiting his daughter, Jane, and her husband in Glen Burnie, Maryland. His old friend, Harold Leonhart, a past president of the Baltimore Civitan Club, took him sailing on Chesapeake Bay and told him it was time for him to come out of retirement. The American Red Cross in Baltimore was looking for a medical consultant and Harold said, "Shrop, you need to apply for that position."

 That sounded like just the opportunity that Dr. Shropshire was looking for. He was appointed medical director of the Baltimore Medical Defense Blood Center and agreed to serve until 1953. Of course, he also became involved with the Baltimore Civitan Club and met the McNultys.

 Dr. Shopshire recognized the significance of the Baltimore Club's quest to help children with developmental disabilities and saw great potential for widespread Civitan participation. Later, he joined Civitan Orville Brink and others at a Civitan International convention in proposing the Chesapeake District project as a special initiative for all Civitan clubs and members.

 Thousands of Civitans then embraced Tom McNulty's crusade. They raised more funds for scholarships and contributed generously to an organization then known as the National Association for Retarded Children, now widely recognized as the ARC. Civitan's support helped fund a large-scale public information campaign to promote a better understanding of developmental disabilities.

 In the 1970s, Civitans started supporting the Special Olympics movement and volunteered in large numbers to help stage sports competition in their communities and regions for people with developmental disabilities. Their commitment grew and Past International Presidents Bill Haehnel and Brian Connelly led Civitans to support the quadrennial Special Olympics International games. Thousands of members volunteered in Baton Rouge, South Bend, Minneapolis, New Haven, and in North Carolina. Their total contributions reached into the millions of dollars and their personal involvement inspired them to do even more.

 Finally, in 1989, Civitans' commitment reached a higher plateau. They enthusiastically approved a resolution presented by Presidents Fred Kletrovets and Erv Hanson to contribute a total of $20 million, at the rate of up to S1 million a year, to support a new research center at The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) that would focus on human development and developmental disabilities.

 With help from the Civitan International Foundation's most generous grant, UAB constructed a beautiful six-story building to house the Civitan International Research Center. When the new building opened in 1992, Tom and Tommy McNulty were invited to come to Birmingham and see first-hand what their pioneering efforts of nearly 50 years had produced. (Unfortunately, Mary had passed away some years earlier.)

 As Tom and Tommy toured the laboratories, equipped with the latest high-tech devices, Tommy turned and said, "You know, if it weren ' t for me, you wouldn't have this place." That was profound insight from someone whose doctor had made such dire predictions about his potential.

 Tom passed away a few years later, but Chesapeake District Civitans took Tommy under their wing and even brought him to several international conventions. He was a living symbol of Civitan's determination to help people with developmental disabilities.

 In March 2002, at age 59, Tommy McNulty died. But his pioneering spirit continues to inspire Civitans throughout the world. A substantial bequest from the McNulty estate will help them reach their goal of supporting world-class research, train, and clinical services at the Research Center that will be the McNultys' legacy for decades to come.


Tommy McNulty


 When Tommy McNulty was born in 1942, his parents, Tom and Mary McNulty, were told by a pediatrician: "The child is mongoloid. He will never walk or talk or won't be able to care for himself as long as he lives. If he was my child, I would put him in an institution and forget him."

 These were terrible words for the young couple. They visited several others, each offering the same advice, before finding Dr. Winthrop Phelps in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Phelps said that Tommy might never learn to read or write, but what difference would that make if he is accepted socially?

 "Now, when you get him out to the car, put him in his car seat and talk to him as you would to any child. He may never learn to read or write, but give him a chance," Phelps concluded.

 So they thought about what the doctor said and proceeded to do follow his sage advice. They took Tommy everywhere they went - to parties, restaurants, the beach, Europe.

 He never did learn to read or write ... but he had two loving parents who gave him love and attention, and he flourished, just as a rose flourishes under the care of a master gardener. Tommy was a happy child who left everyone with a smile.

 In many ways Tommy McNulty was extraordinary. He had speech therapists and private tutors, attended private schools, and sheltered workshops. And he was quite a swimmer. At a YMCA pool in 1968 he dove down several times after a boy who had sunk to the bottom, pulling him back a few feet each time toward the shallow end of the pool. Finally others saw what he was doing and dove in to help rescue the boy.

 Catherine Sweeney, a neighbor of the McNultys, once said of Mary and Tom: "Doctors told them to put Tommy away, that he was going to be nothing more than a lump. But they gave him love. And love does work wonders."

 Tommy McNulty will be missed by those of us who had the opportunity to meet and talk with him. On March 6, 2002, God called him to heaven to join Tom and Mary once again. Goodbye Tommy!


Written for the September 2001 Greater Loudoun Civitan Club Newsletter by MICHAEL L. BROWN - Administrator of the Civitan International Research Center. He is also past president of the Birmingham Civitan Club.