A dentist? A peace activist?
The Rochester media seemed a little surprised in the late 1960s that anyone could be both, but, then again, there was Dr. George McVey of Brighton.
“Rochester Area Has Its Own Dr. Spock,” headlined the Democrat and Chronicle on Aug. 12, 1968, comparing McVey to Dr. Benjamin Spock, the nationally known pediatrician and opponent of U.S. involvement in the war.
But McVey, who died on June 14, 2022, in Maine at age 94, just two weeks shy of his 95th birthday, and who will be memorialized at Nov. 26 at 10:30 a.m. at Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, wasn’t just a dentist. And he wasn’t just an activist.
He was a military veteran, a husband, a volunteer on behalf of the disenfranchised, the father of six daughters and a masters level swimmer and a swimming official.
“As daughters, we experienced lots of different cycles of my dad’s life,” says McVey’s oldest daughter Pam Babij of Baltimore, who recalls everything from their house filling up with activists to bicycle trips to Don & Bob’s on Monroe Avenue for chocolate almond or butter brickle cream. (Ordering butter brickle would tie up his tongue a little, a remnant of a childhood stutter that he had mostly overcome.)
A native of Queens, McVey joined the U.S. Navy out of high school at the end of World War and attended Holy Cross College on the GI Bill, graduating in 1950. (Also in his class was basketball great Bob Cousy). McVey eventually settled in the Rochester area with his first wife, Patricia, and their family.
They had three very young daughters when Patricia died of cancer in 1963. McVey, who had been in public relations, was in the middle of a career shift then, attending dental school at the University of Buffalo.
After his wife’s death, McVey, shaken and transformed by grief, reached out to Philip Berrigan, his Holy Cross classmate, for consul. By this time, Berrigan, and his brother Daniel, also a priest, were peace activists.
Philip Berrigan put McVey in contact with people at Immaculate Conception Church, a diverse and liberal parish in Rochester’s Corn Hill neighborhood, and McVey thus began his own activism.
In his last year of dental school, McVey met Suzanne Martin. “They quickly fell in love,” says Pam Babij. “Her family was aghast she would date someone 12 years older than her with no job and three children.”
The couple married in 1966. They had three children, bringing the number of daughters in the home to six.
“It was the most fun ever having babies in the house,” Babij says. “Sue became our second mother. She raised us. A big reason Dad could do all of his activism is she was at home with all of the kids.”
The house became a meeting ground for all sorts of anti-war planning. (FBI surveillance teams watching closely, according to documents later released). Pam remembers sitting at the top of the stairs and listen to the strategizing.
At one point, the authorities suggested that some of the strategizing may have been about a 1971 plot involving the Berrigans to kidnap Henry Kissinger, then the National Security Adviser. The case against the Berrigans and others resulted in a hung jury, save for a few minor convictions. It was not retried. McVey, who had not been charged, was convicted of contempt of court after he refused to testify.
“Though I have nothing to be ashamed of, I would have to bear a great burden of shame if I cooperated with this fishing party,” McVey said in a printed statement after his conviction, a conviction that was later dismissed on appeal.
As first, McVey’s activism hurt his dental practice in downtown Rochester. (He would ride his bike to work; join protest gatherings during the lunch hour.) But he picked up new patients, many of them connected to liberal causes. He also donated some of his services to the needy.
McVey would go to the Seneca Army Depot monthly to stand against nuclear weapons with Veterans for Peace. He was also active in many social justice efforts in Rochester.
Sue McVey died in 2012 at age 72. In early 2020, George McVey, who was dealing with health issues, moved to Orrington, Maine, to be close to family.
In addition to Pam Babij, he is survived by his daughters Mimi McVey of Baltimore, Mary McVey, Karen Fussell and Connie McVey, all of Maine, and Amy McVey of Burlington, Vermont.
As suggested by Mary Jo Lanphear, the Town of Brighton historian, let’s add George McVey’s name to our list of Remarkable Rochesterians.
George McVey (1927-2022): A dentist and a longtime leader of anti-war and social justice activities in the Rochester area for more than 20 years, the Queens native graduated from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn and joined the U.S. Navy near the end of World War II. He graduated from Holy Cross College in 1950 and the University of Buffalo’s dental school in 1966. Encouraged by his Holy Cross classmate, the Rev. Philip Berrigan, he became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement in Rochester, joining with Veterans for Peace. He served as president of Metro-Act, volunteered for years at the St. Joseph House of Hospitality and was the co-founder of Niagara District Masters Swimming.
From his home in Geneseo, Livingston County, retired senior editor Jim Memmott, writes Remarkable Rochester, who we were, who we are. He can be reached at [email protected] or write Box 274, Geneseo, NY 14454