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Still Standing

Posted January 28, 2008 by Denise Di Stephan

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She helped her husband become governor and stood by him when he shocked the world. Then she became a working single mom, focused on the present—until The Confession stirred up the past. Now Dina Matos McGreevey is concentrating on the future.

Once upon a time, a little girl from the Ironbound section of Newark grew up to become first lady of New Jersey. With a new baby girl, a home in the Castle of Drumthwacket and a husband elected to the highest post in the kingdom, she tried to oblige those who wanted her to be their princess.

The scribes in the land wrote stories and took pictures of her in gowns at galas and followed her almost everywhere. Dina Matos had enjoyed a fantasy three-year courtship with a political wonk nobody doubted would ascend to the throne. But after her tireless campaigning helped get James E. McGreevey elected governor in 2001—one month before their daughter, Jacqueline, was born—life got tough for a shy woman who wanted the “happily ever after” more than the limelight.

“There was so much attention paid to where I went, where I shopped, what I wore, and even what I ate,” Matos McGreevey says. “There was one article about where I went out for dinner for my birthday and detailed everything I ordered. Why is there an article about what I ate for dinner? I went out to a restaurant for my birthday, just like anyone else.”

Matos McGreevey was born in Coimbra, Portu­­gal, to Maria and Ricardo Matos, and moved with her family to Newark when she was seven. As she grew up, she became committed to serving her neighborhood and its immigrant population.

Armando Fontoura has been Essex County sheriff for the past sixteen years. He remembers Dina Matos as a teenager twenty years ago, doing volunteer work for the Portuguese-American Congress, a group he founded in 1985 to unite and mobilize Portuguese residents in New Jersey. “We really wanted the young people to get involved, and Dina was one of the first to step up,” says Fontoura. “She helped a lot with voter-registration drives, getting people naturalized, and she also worked hard for the Portuguese-American Scholarship Foundation. She was always the first one there and the last one to leave.”

She still hasn’t left. Matos McGreevey, 40, still attends some of the group’s meetings and frequents the Ironbound to visit friends. And in June 2004, a few months before her husband resigned, she was chosen to be grand marshal in Newark’s Portugal Day parade, the highlight of more than a week of festivities in Newark.
Matos McGreevey had been named executive director of the Columbus Foundation, the fund-raising arm of Columbus Hospital in Newark, as well as to the Cancer Institute’s Leadership Council, after she became first lady. But her commitment to healthcare and her hometown began when she was a volunteer fundraiser for St. James Hospital in Newark more than sixteen years ago.

In 1990 the hospital hired her to be its coordinator of community relations and later promoted her to manager of public and professional relations. After five years at St. James she moved to Columbus Hospital, where she served as director of patient relations before taking over as the head of the foundation, a position she still holds.

“Last year we provided about $28 million in charity care to people who have no insurance, and we were reimbursed about $3.2 million from the state. We need money!” she says, laughing at her own bluntness. Matos McGreevey estimates that the foundation has raised about $300,000 each year during her five-year tenure as executive director.

Matos McGreevey says she’s “just like anyone else,” juggling her roles as a mother, fundraiser, and volunteer that started first with her commitment to her hometown. But after living through a public courtship and marriage, a premature birth, and the pressure of being a politician’s wife, Matos McGreevey’s world was shattered in 2004 by her husband’s public admission that he was gay and his resignation from office—hardly the stuff that regular people face. She turned to her family, her faith, her work, and her causes, which also include volunteer work for the March of Dimes.

Matos McGreevey’s reserved nature, and the popular misconception that her life started when she met her future husband, belie the fact that she was a 31-year-old career woman when the two met at a Newark restaurant. For eleven years she’s been fighting to keep Columbus Hospital growing, and she credits everyone from the top administrators to researchers and nurses for its success. She appreciates her ascent as one of the Garden State’s famous faces, but wants to focus on her work and isn’t interested in dishing about life with the ex-governor.
“I want to [talk about] causes that I believe in,” she says. “At Columbus, we have one of the best children’s eyecare centers in the country. At the Cancer Institute, there is research going on that is astounding. My father, Ricardo, was treated for cancer there and he’s fine.” Her father’s treatment in 1997 inspired Matos McGreevey to begin volunteering on behalf of the institute. Her work, both paid and volunteer, around the state seems to be therapeutic.

“Here, I’m just a co-worker,” she says from her office at Columbus. “There is so much scrutiny of public officials [and their families] that a lot of people don’t want to run for office. I handled it pretty well, but I didn’t like it. I think it made me stronger. Sometimes going through things changes your perspective, but it doesn’t necessarily change your values or the core of who you are. I’m the same regular person I always was.”

A devout Roman-Catholic, she also credits her faith with getting her through the trying times. “I had an inner strength I didn’t know I had,” she says.

That inner strength was tested again in September when The Confession, a memoir written by her husband and David France, was released. Matos McGreevey says she told her husband she would rather he didn’t write the book, which focuses on his life as a closeted gay man. As she and her husband work through the details of dissolving their union, she won’t discuss her marriage, the book, or whether she’ll return to her maiden name. “I don’t think I’ll read it; I just want to move on with my life,” she says. “All the publicity surrounding the book brings a lot to the surface that I’ve tried to put behind me.” But when asked about the biographical information on the back of the book jacket, which states that her husband “lives in Plainfield, New Jersey, with his partner, Mark O’Donnell, and daughter Jacqueline,” she can’t help but make a correction. Jacqueline lives with her in their Springfield home but stays with her father every other weekend. The inaccuracy has since been removed from the website of the publisher, ReganBooks, a division of HarperCollins, as well as from Amazon.com and the Barnes & Noble website. However, it remains on the book jacket. The ex-governor did not respond to requests for comment.

When asked how Matos McGreevey coped in the aftermath of the media frenzy surrounding The Confession, her longtime friend and colleague Carol McKinney replies quickly, “I had no doubt that she would rise above it and get through it. Dina knows who she is, and I don’t think anything he could write could define that. She is who she is.” McKinney, who has known Matos McGreevey since they began working together at St. James, was surprised about a section in the book in which McGreevey implies that his wife knew he was gay and that “the marriage was a contrivance for both of us.”

“I was very disappointed to see him say that,” McKinney says. “I never really got to know Jim. He was always on what we thought was government business. But I expected him to take the high road [in the book]. Her family and friends all know, without a doubt, that this was a very real marriage for her. We were there when she fell in love. We were there when she was planning the wedding. She is a very genuine person. Any implication that she is anything less than that is incredible to me. But I saw a few television interviews, and I think he is backing away from that a little bit.”

Richard J. Codey, state Senate president and lifelong Essex County resident, said he found it amusing that The Confession referred to him as living in Passaic County. “Who proofread this book?” he wonders. Codey, who succeeded McGreevey as acting governor, serving from November 16, 2004, to January 17, 2006, says he had hoped that the book would focus on McGreevey’s political career and that it would be sensitive to Matos McGreevey’s time as first lady. “She was always nice and gracious to my wife and me,” he says. “I’m not so sure she reveled in being first lady.…I wish them both well. I hope they both find happiness.”

Dr. William Hait, director of the fifteen-year-old Cancer Institute, says Matos McGreevey has been a consistent, tireless volunteer in promoting the organization. “She has turned out to be fantastic at raising our profile in New Jersey. She’s completely genuine, hardworking, and a real dynamo.”

Matos McGreevey has been a member of the institute’s Leadership Council, joining other prominent figures such as former governor Christine Todd Whitman and LPGA star and golf commentator Val Skinner, since 2004. Soon after accepting the appointment, she became chair of the council’s public-relations committee, which publicizes the institute’s annual Award of Hope fund-raising gala.
Matos McGreevey moves easily among the influential patrons of the institute, but she seems most comfortable talking about the people who’ve benefited from its services. She speaks proudly of the institute’s use of a new drug trial to help a woman suffering from lung and liver cancer.

“She was hopeless when she came to the institute,” she says. “She had been in and out of hospitals and had had chemotherapy, but that wasn’t helping.” Matos McGreevey says the woman began taking a drug called Tarceva and has made steady improvement. The former first lady keeps in touch with her regularly to track her progress.

Becoming a single, working mom has forced Matos McGreevey to make tough choices. She has scaled back some of her volunteer work, she says, “because I want to spend as much time as possible with my daughter. We love to go to museums, the beach, and the park.” The self-described “huge Devils fan” also took Jacqueline to her first hockey game. “She liked it, but she was mostly busy talking to people,” Matos McGreevey says with a laugh. “She’s very social. And she loves to read. She’s just like any other kid.”

But things could have turned out quite differently, if not for the foresight of doctors at St. Peter’s University Hospital, where Jacqueline was born prematurely on December 7, 2001.

“Had my doctor not taken action immediately, she would have been delivered earlier, at about ten or eleven weeks premature, and probably only about three pounds,” Matos McGreevey says. After six weeks of bed rest, her daughter, Jacqueline, was born five weeks early, weighing four pounds, five ounces.

Jacqueline had none of the health or developmental problems that can occur in babies born prematurely, but Matos McGreevey had plenty of time to do research. She started volunteering and raising money for the March of Dimes, which uses education, research, and legislative lobbying to help prevent premature births and birth defects.

“Having my daughter was the most gratifying experience of my life,” Matos McGreevey says. “She’s my number-one priority. I just want to make sure she grows up to be a happy, healthy girl.”

As for her own future, Matos McGreevey understands that there is probably more change to come.

“I feel like I’m still in a transition period,” she says. “I haven’t settled yet into wherever I’m going to be.”


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