Jenice Armstrong: His service never wanes

Posted: September 01, 2010

IT ISN'T EVERY guy who gets sick and has beauty queens bringing casseroles to his door. But most people haven't spent their lives paying it forward, the way Kevin McAleese has.

Even when the now-retired Army Reserves colonel was juggling serving tours in Bosnia, Iraq and Germany with running his own head-hunting firm, he managed to always find time to serve as executive director of the city's annual Miss Philadelphia Pageant.

If you've ever been to one of these productions, then you know they're a big deal especially for the lucky winner who walks away with a $10,000 scholarship - $20,000 if she enrolls at Drexel University. The runners-up get scholarships, too.

"His whole purpose is to make sure that these young women get the best possible scholarship opportunities and the opportunity to do community service," said Agnes White, Miss Philadelphia's assistant director and McAleese's right-hand when he was overseas.

"Everyone looks at Kevin and wonders how he does it," pointed out Kate Wilson, Miss Philadelphia 2000. "He's one of the most selfless people on the planet and people respond to that. There's no ulterior motive. He just wants to provide opportunities for young women. I'm one of the young women who benefited. It's never about him."

It's going to have to be about him now, though. McAleese has brain cancer. He found out in May after a college friend noticed that his speech sounded odd. Doctors discovered five tumors, four of which were removed before he began an aggressive schedule of both chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The regimen wiped him out. He's rebuilding his strength at his home in the Art Museum area while looking forward to going to Duke University where the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and baseball star Tug McGraw were both treated.

He sounds great, though.

"God willing, in a few months, I absolutely want to go back to work," said McAleese, who retired from the Reserves last year after 30 years and now works in the Navy's Wounded Warrier program, helping servicemen find employment. "I'm feeling very positive. The key is to have that love around you . . . I have very strong feelings that I'm going to get through this."

That's McAleese. Unfailingly positive. Upbeat. No wonder the producers for "Deal or No Deal" selected him to appear on the show. McAleese wound up walking away with $138,000.

"I used to call him Mr. Miss Philadelphia because he embodies so many of the qualities that represent the pageant," said Ruth Weisberg, Miss Philadelphia 1980 who has both judged and hosted the pageant for McAleese.

A life-long bachelor with no children, he lives alone but has his elderly mother and sister as well as a host of Army buddies from the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade in Norristown and other units in which he served, checking in on him.

And then there are all the former Miss Philadelphias. Andrea Helfrich, who entered the pageant four times before finally winning the crown this spring, explained their loyalty. "He's given all of us support throughout our lives. So, it's a chance for us to finally help him. He's always helping other people." After fighting for our country, he's in a fight for his life. Send a prayer his way.

Send e-mail to heyjen@phillynews.com. My blog: http://go.philly.com/heyjen.

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