When Michael J. Dowling arrived in New York from his native Ireland at age 17, he marveled “in complete awe” at the Manhattan skyscrapers towering above him. On March 17, New Yorkers will get their turn to look upon him in admiration as he steps off as grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade along Manhattan’s famed Fifth Avenue.
“It was a big surprise. I did not expect it, and did not know that it was being discussed,” Dowling, 67, who is president and chief executive officer of Northwell Health, said of the honor bestowed on him.
When the call came that he had been named grand marshal, Dowling said he was “very delighted and quite humbled by the recognition.”
“When you look at the luminaries that have been in that situation before, it is pretty extraordinary to be in their company.
“The day is important because 256 years of tradition is extraordinary,” continued Dowling.
The grand marshal hopes that parade-goers not only enjoy “the festivities and the wonderful, good cheer,” but also recognize “the contributions of the Irish and other immigrant groups to the success of the U.S. and the success of New York.”
“If people can, for a moment during the celebrations, think back about all of the people that came before, and all the trials and tribulations that they went through, and recognize how fortunate we are, and what a great sanctuary the United States has been to all of these groups including the Irish over these years, that would be just wonderful.”
Attending the Mass that Cardinal Dolan is celebrating at St. Patrick’s Cathedral before the 11 a.m. parade will make for “an extraordinary morning to kick off the whole fabulous day,” said Dowling, who belongs to St. Philip Neri parish in Northport, Long Island.
“I grew up Catholic, and it was a mainstay of everything I grew up with in Ireland,” said Dowling, who served as an altar boy.
“It was a stabilizing force. Even in bad times when things were pretty tough, which they were in my circumstance, the Catholic Church was one of those constants that made it possible to live through those times.”
And now he heads Northwell, the largest system of hospitals and long-term care providers in New York and the largest private employer in New York state.
Dowling has enjoyed a career in the field of human services. “Part of that came from my own background because my father was a recipient of public welfare services at one point—(he) suffered terribly from arthritis and couldn’t work anymore after about the age of 42 and was on various forms of disability—and so I’ve always had an interest in this. I wanted to be in a business where you’re actually providing services to the public, providing services to vulnerable people, people in distress, people who have unfortunate health occurrences.
“That humanism that is also at the core of the Catholic Church is very, very important to me.”
“We serve everybody,” he said, regardless of circumstance, religion, culture or income. “We’re involved quite a lot with community-based organizations. We do work with Catholic Charities in various locations.”
Before becoming Northwell Health’s president and CEO in 2002, Dowling was the health system’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. Before joining Northwell Health in 1995, he was a senior vice president at Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
He served in the New York state government for 12 years, including seven years as state director of Health, Education and Human Services and deputy secretary to the governor. He was also commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services.
Dowling has also been professor of social policy and assistant dean at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Services, and director of the Fordham campus in Westchester County.
He and his wife Kathleen are the parents of two grown children, Brian and Elizabeth, both of whom have followed in their father’s footsteps in the health care industry: Brian operates an imaging center; Elizabeth is an oncology nurse.
Raised in the small, rural village of Knockaderry in West Limerick, Dowling is the eldest five children. He became a U.S. citizen in the mid-1980s; his three brothers and sister remain in Ireland.
His work ethic was honed from his humble roots and the example of his late parents. His father, Jack, fixed roads for the County Council. His mother Meg, a homemaker who was deaf, learned how to become a seamstress in England during World War II. In Knockaderry, most her work was pro bono—she made the altar boy vestments for the parish—as well as clothes for the neighbors and their children.
“We were one of the poorest families in the community,” Dowling said. Their small house had no bathroom, electricity, running water or heat. “It had mud walls, a thatch roof and mud floor.”
His father was a wise taskmaster, he said, and taught him to milk cows and build brick walls by age 7. And through his mother’s influence, he devoured books as a boy, from Shakespeare to Zane Grey’s adventures about the American frontier.
Dowling came to the United States to find employment and pay for college. He worked on the docks, in construction, as a plumber and as a custodian, cleaning out schools and bars at night. His jobs were mostly in Manhattan and also in New Rochelle and Pelham. “I would work almost seven days a week. It was, to me, not that difficult” but “extremely beneficial.”
“How you act regarding your work tells a lot about yourself—much more so than it does about the work itself,” Dowling said. “To me, work is enjoyment.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from University College Cork, Ireland, and what is known in Ireland as a higher diploma in education, and a master’s in public welfare from Fordham. He pursued a doctorate in social welfare and economics at Columbia University. “I did everything except hand in my dissertation because I got a call from the governor’s office to join Gov. Mario Cuomo back then. The dissertation sat in the trunk of my car for years.”
Just as his work led him to academic pursuits, serving as grand marshal, Dowling said, is “just a wonderful description of what’s possible in the United States.”