Featuring: The history of Mary Lawlor, taken from an interview with Ceca Foundation co-founder, Matthew Lawlor, reflecting on his mother’s life and Ceca’s beginnings.

77 years ago, General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord. He told the troops: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”

D-Day began at dawn on June 6, 1944. That morning, 160,000 American and Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France in one of the largest amphibious invasions in history. Over 13,000 aircraft and 5,000 ships supported these fighting men, and by the end of the day, they had broken through Nazi defenses and had a foothold in Normandy. Over 4,000 soldiers died and thousands more were wounded, but their sacrifice allowed the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who followed to continue their march across France to liberate Paris, and push into Germany.

Most of the soldiers who followed were men, but many were women who had enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in non-combatant roles to “free up a man to fight.” WACs relieved thousands of men of their clerical assignments and also performed as radio operators, electricians, and air traffic controllers—this was their war too!

Mary Lawlor WAC photoAmong these soldiers was Mary McLaughlin, a 22-year-old First Lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps. She had served in London during the Blitzkrieg, and weeks after the Normandy Landing, she led the first platoon of women in a landing craft across the English Channel to Omaha Beach. She remembered her platoon of women up to their knees in mud, climbing the cliffs of Omaha Beach. They dressed in leggings, trousers and combat jackets to keep out the cold. They camped out in tents in orchards, eating field rations, and washing in cold water they collected in their helmets. And then they traveled in a canvas topped Army truck to Paris, where Mary established the women’s unit. Her platoon immediately went to work as telephone operators, typists, and clerks, working in tents, cellars, prefabricated huts, and mobile trailers, manning switchboards abandoned by the Germans.

Mary returned to London to work with Allied leadership who were planning how to govern Germany after the war. Her planning group moved to Versailles, and then Berlin, where Mary worked with the Allied Control Council, as an adjutant to General Dwight Eisenhower. It was in Berlin that she met her future husband, John Dixon Lawlor. A West Point graduate, John Lawlor had led troops in combat and was decorated for valor by General George Patton, and eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General. They married and raised a “litter” of six children while living as a military family does—moving around the mid-Atlantic states, South Korea and Japan—and eventually settling in Winnetka, Illinois. Years later, she testified to Congress about her experiences and was influential in the developing military policy of women in combat roles.

Mary Lawlor with familyThroughout her life, Mary served as a leader for her country and her community, and as a caregiver for her family—a strong woman with a soft way. As she aged, her family helped her look for a senior living facility, where she would be safe, happy, and close by. She found her home in Washington, D.C. at Knollwood, a life plan community serving officers from the uniformed services and high-ranking government officials, and their families as well. Mary Lawlor became part of a tight-knit community of people who have a shared history of serving our nation, and she loved it.

Every year, on June 6, Americans honor those who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy. We celebrate D-Day, as the beginning of the end of World War II. And every year on June 6th, those who are part of the Ceca network, celebrate Mary Lawlor for her extraordinary service during that time and her extraordinary life—for she was the inspiration behind Ceca Foundation.

Matt Lawlor, Mary’s oldest child, and his wife Rosemary recognized the wonderful life his mother had at Knollwood. She loved the social life, the creative activities, the camaraderie—the mutual trust and friendship among people who were part of this community, and her world. The staff at Knollwood made her last years enjoyable and a home in every sense of the word. She not only had caregivers, she had friends who wrapped her in warmth and happiness.

When Mary passed, she was interred with her husband in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors. But the Lawlor’s wanted to do something more to honor her and to recognize those extraordinary healthcare workers who cared for her. Combining that idea with the influence of their volunteer experience at senior living facilities in the area, and Matt’s experience with an employee recognition program at Online Resources, a company he founded, Ceca Foundation was born in 2013. Since then, Ceca has publicly recognized 30,000 acts of care and honored over 850 caregivers with monetary Ceca Awards.

77 years ago, we fought a war around the world to defend democracy against fascism—a cause for which over 400,000 Americans gave their lives. Mary Lawlor is one of the heroes we honor when we remember those who stormed the beaches on D-Day, and the many others that served valiantly in World War II.

Ceca Foundation was formed to honor the memory of Mary Lawlor and to thank her caregivers for making her last years exceptional. It exists today to honor healthcare heroes across the nation —the nurses, CNAs, maintenance workers, administrators, food service providers, therapists, activities directors, cleaning staff and clerks—who work in healthcare communities to provide compassionate care to those who care for us and our loved ones.

Today, we are fighting a war against COVID-19, a pandemic in which nearly 600,000 Americans have died. Today’s heroes are the healthcare workers who work tirelessly every day to protect and care for our most vulnerable populations. At Ceca Foundation, we will continue our mission to honor and thank them for years to come.

Author’s Note: Ceca often recognizes caregivers that work daily with our many veterans across the nation from all branches of military and walks of life. Read another particularly moving story about caregiver Bernadette Legette helping a veteran through a PTSD trauma.