Obituary: Margaret Meehan, US ambassador’s wife

BORN: 4 March, 1923, in Glasgow. Died: 15 March, 2015, in Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute, aged 92.
Ambassador's wife known for her organising and cooking skills. Picture: ContributedAmbassador's wife known for her organising and cooking skills. Picture: Contributed
Ambassador's wife known for her organising and cooking skills. Picture: Contributed

Margaret Kearns Meehan, who has died peacefully at her home in Helensburgh, was the dedicated and talented wife of Francis J Meehan, a career diplomat who became an ambassador in the United States Foreign Service. She was 92.

She supported her husband, brought up and arranged the education of their four children and entertained and cooked for diplomats and VIP guests during the 66 years of their long and happy marriage.

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Margaret had a remarkable and exciting but frequently stressful life during which she lived in 23 different houses and embassies in the United States and Eastern Europe before finally settling in their beautiful home in Helensburgh, overlooking the Firth of Clyde.

Her husband was the US ambassador in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland during the Cold War and her considerable skills as an organiser and hostess at receptions and dinners was legendary.

Francis Meehan said: “She was a terrific organiser and cook. They say that moving house is one of the most stressful things a person can do in their lifetime, but Margaret took it all in her stride as we moved from house to house a remarkable 23 times.”

Margaret, who was born in Yoker, was the third of eight children of Patrick and Annie Kearns, and was educated at Our Holy Redeemer primary and secondary school in Clydebank.

Her siblings included Patrick Kearns, who won the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) while serving with the Royal Air Force in India and Burma; the Rev Hugh Kearns, who was Catholic chaplain to the British troops serving in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s, and Jim Kearns, who was a popular teacher at St Patrick’s High School, Dumbarton.

Margaret’s education was interrupted by the Clydebank Blitz in March 1941, and the Kearns family were evacuated to Helensburgh.

They spent most of the rest of the war billeted under the roof of the Blackie book publishing family in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Hill House before moving back to Clydebank.

Her husband, who had also been evacuated after the Blitz, in his case from Dalmuir to Dumbarton, was a regular visitor to the Kearns family home in Helensburgh and Clydebank.

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Frank and Margaret were part of a happy and talented circle of friends from family, church, school and university, whose shared interests included hill walking, music, football and tennis.

Frank had been born in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1924, but had returned home to Clydebank as a small child with his mother, who was homesick.

He went to St Stephen’s PS in Dalmuir and St Patrick’s High School in Dumbarton and graduated MA from the University of Glasgow before taking up a sub-editing post on the then Glasgow Herald. He was later awarded an LLD (Hon) from Glasgow.

Margaret joined the army (ATS) and worked in communications. She and Frank were courting when he received his call-up papers for the US army and was sent to Fontainebleau in France to complete his infantry training.

They were married in 1949 in Manhattan, where she had emigrated to work initially as a child minder and become reunited with her husband-to-be.

Frank was a talented linguist who spoke fluent German and Russian. He entered the US Foreign Service in 1951 and was a clerk in the American Consulate in Bremen and a junior officer in the Marshall Plan Administration.

Margaret was at Frank’s side when he graduated MPA from Harvard in 1957 and rose through the ranks of the US Foreign Service, specialising in Eastern European and Communist affairs. One of his diplomatic postings was Hungary, where the Meehans were friends of Cardinal József Mindszenty. For five decades he had personified uncompromising opposition to fascism and communism in Hungary in support of religious freedom. He spent eight years in prison before being freed in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and granted political asylum by the US embassy in Budapest, where he lived for the next 15 years.

Meehan was also posted to Moscow in the aftermath of the U2 spy plane incident in 1960; East Germany when spies were being swapped prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and Warsaw, when the Solidarity trade union emerged under Lech Walesa and General Jaruzelski declared martial law.

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Margaret met world leaders and plenipotentiaries and travelled with her husband to a number of official engagements, including a meeting with Pope John Paul II in Vatican City.

She was a delightful conversationalist and an excellent cook, organising and hosting with her husband dinners and receptions for events such as the 4 July US National Day celebrations.

Mrs Meehan was renowned for her sense of humour and left a lasting impression on the many American and foreign diplomats and dignitaries whom she met in the embassies in Prague, Warsaw and Berlin between 1979 and 1989.

She loved ballet, music, reading, flowers and sewing and became actively engaged with the interior design of some of the embassies in which her family lived.

All the while she was involved in bringing up and overseeing the education of her four children – Anne, Catherine, Frances and Jim.

Mrs Meehan was a marvellous storyteller; she had lots to tell stories about but she never forgot her roots in Clydebank, which she visited often to be with family and friends during her long and fulfilled

She loved the shipbuilding town where she had so many friends, having worked there in the telephone exchange. Her father had been the champion of Clydebank Bowling Club in the 1930s and her grandfather a founding member of the club in 1884.

Margaret, who some years ago suffered a stroke followed by a long period of illness and incapacity with Alzheimer’s, was cared for by her devoted husband and children up to the moment of her death on 15 March.

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She is survived by her husband, Frank, their four children, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

A Requiem Mass for Margaret Meehan will be celebrated in St Joseph’s RC Church, Helensburgh, at 10am on Tuesday, 7 April, followed by the final committal at Cardross Cemetery.