The Celtic Cross is awarded each year to someone who shows courage, faith and simplicity of life.
John McCullough recently received that honor from the Celtic Cross Society for his work with the Massachusetts Special Olympics.
“You don’t get involved in programs like the Special Olympics looking for anything back,” McCullough said. “But it seems the recognition is not only for some of the work I did for the Special Olympics, but also for the Special Olympics itself.”
The Celtic Cross Society was formed in 1996 by the Rev. Robert Doherty, currently the pastor at Saint Mary of the Assumption Church in Revere.
“I wanted to reward ordinary people who help others,” Doherty said. “I feel as though they should be recognized for their efforts in helping others.”
McCullough, 65, an attorney and Methuen resident, has worn many different hats over the more than 30 years he has been involved in the Special Olympics, including legal counsel, head coach, a member and president of the board of directors, and now as a member of the building commission. He’s enjoyed each part of it as much as the next.
“I really met some wonderful people,” McCullough said. “Not only members of the board, but many of the athletes I still see around and still talk to. I think that’s a vital part of how the Special Olympics works. Whether you’re a coach or a member of the board, everyone puts in a lot of dedicated, hard hours.”
McCullough first got involved with the organization when a former client asked him to be legal counsel, which he did pro bono.
“I always felt that people with mental retardation can do things, and I think for many, many years they were just pushed aside,” McCullough said. “I think that through athletic training they develop a sense of self-worth and often then matriculate into jobs and other things that give them personal self- esteem. I think it’s a worthwhile project.”
While McCullough has been in contact with many athletes and board members throughout the years, one of his fondest memories was being the head coach in the 1978 World Games at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
“We had 3,000 athletes from all over the world participating,” McCullough said. “There were several athletes that made remarkable strides. There was one athlete that didn’t talk to anybody. He wouldn’t open his mouth; he was afraid to talk. But as he got into the program and he had a great deal of success at Notre Dame, he started talking to everybody.”
McCullough believes the Special Olympics helps the athletes learn to compete and grow as people.
“I think it’s a great outlet for them,” McCullough said. “But I think you have to also understand that even though Special Olympic athletes are special in a defined way, they’re ordinary people in other ways.
“Some people really appreciate what’s going on and some people take it for granted now because it’s been around for so long, but I think the central thing is to always look at the athletes and their families as just ordinary people. I think that’s the difference as they get integrated into society. They don’t stand out as much and that’s a big thing.”
As busy as he is, McCullough said he doesn’t think he’ll leave the Special Olympics anytime soon.
“I’ve always had an infinity for the organization,” McCullough said. “I don’t expect to just stop. It’s not something you just walk away from.”
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