CAPE ELIZABETH — A year ago, Mike McGovern heard Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, speak in Budapest, Hungary.

This month, McGovern met Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, in Geneva.

McGovern, who has been town manager here for nearly three decades, chatted with Chan during a meeting of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Major partners in the initiative include Rotary International and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. McGovern was there as chairman of The Rotary Foundation’s International PolioPlus Committee.

“Ban Ki-moon told us that 1 billion people in the world don’t have a toilet in their home,” McGovern recalled. “Margaret Chan is the person in charge of controlling Ebola in the world. The issues we face in Cape Elizabeth are important, but when you encounter people like that, it puts everything in perspective.”

Since 2006, McGovern has traveled thousands of miles across the United States and to more than 20 other countries promoting Rotary’s signature campaign against poliomyelitis, a highly infectious disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause paralysis and sometimes death in a matter of hours. The U.S. has been polio-free for more than three decades because of effective vaccines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since Rotary started promoting polio vaccination in 1979, the number of polio cases reported worldwide each year has dropped from more than 350,000 to fewer than 350, mostly in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. McGovern heads a fundraising program that spent $128.9 million in 2013-14 with a goal to wipe out polio by the end of 2015.


In November alone, McGovern’s itinerant humanitarian efforts took him to the United Nations in New York City; Cleveland, Tennessee; Alexandria, Virginia; Marrakesh, Morocco; and Manila, Philippines, where he spent Thanksgiving week. As a result of his globe-trotting, McGovern has friends in every state and on every continent, which isn’t necessarily unusual in the Rotary, which has 1.2 million members in 34,000 clubs worldwide.

McGovern’s commitment, however, is uncommon.

“Mike is what I would call an exemplary Rotarian,” said Lawrence Furbish, district governor of 40 Rotary clubs in southern Maine and coastal New Hampshire. Furbish, 69, is a retired nonpartisan researcher for the Connecticut Legislature.

“Making a commitment to serve in Rotary leadership is like a full-time job,” Furbish said. “A very enjoyable job, but it’s still a lot of work. For a guy from a little town in Maine, Mike has had an outstanding Rotary career.”


McGovern, 58, doesn’t talk much about his Rotary work, so few people know about it. He considers it his “hobby,” which is a good thing, because that’s how he spends all of his vacation and professional development time. He schedules travel around holidays and weekends to limit his time away from work, but he still had to take 11 unpaid days this year. And while Rotary pays for his travel and hotel costs, he covers everything else.


“I enjoy meeting lots of diverse people,” McGovern said. “You make friends in your local Rotary, then across the state, then across the nation and now across the world. I get emails every day from people I know all over the world. I’m getting Christmas greetings from every continent.”

McGovern, who grew up in Portland, downplays any fun he might have on Rotary trips, saying that he spends most of his time in meetings. Still, he does get to see some tourist attractions, including kangaroos in Australia and the markets in Marrakesh.

And he enjoys seeing various community health and economic development projects funded by Rotary. In November, he visited a tree-planting, erosion-control project in Morocco, as well as an orphanage, a maternity hospital and a day care center in the Philippines.

“I was brought up to do whatever we could to help other folks,” McGovern said. “I can see how the different projects are making a difference in the lives of so many people.”

McGovern, who is single, can do what he does for Rotary largely because his bosses on the Town Council allow it. McGovern said he’s fortunate to be able to leave municipal duties in the capable hands of other municipal employees and town councilors. Councilors note that, as town manager, McGovern is basically always on the job. So even when he’s in another time zone, he’s only a phone call or email away.

“I can call him on his cell and I don’t know whether he’s in Cape Elizabeth or Shanghai,” said Councilor Katharine Ray, a fellow Rotarian. “It’s pretty exciting work that he’s doing and we appreciate the commitment he’s making.”


Councilor Caitlin Jordan agrees. “What he does helps so many people,” Jordan said. “We’re lucky to have someone in our community who does that kind of work.”


Managing municipal operations from a distance once in a while usually isn’t complicated. Major questions that faced town residents this year ranged from how to develop the town center to how to quiet a raucous rooster on Farm Hill Road.

Sometimes, being away isn’t easy. McGovern was devastated when his friend, Herbert Dennison, a former public works director, died last month after being struck by a vehicle in an accident at the town’s solid-waste transfer station. McGovern was in the Philippines. Dennison was one of the town officials who hired McGovern after he graduated from the University of Maine.

“Everything about it was awful,” McGovern said. Throughout the crisis, he was in regular contact with other town officials, who were handling the town’s response in his absence.

McGovern’s commitment to fighting polio started when he joined the Rotary Club of South Portland-Cape Elizabeth in 1986. The year before, he had been promoted from assistant town manager. A fellow club member asked him to donate $1,000 to the polio campaign.


“At the time, I was making about $25,000 a year, so that was a lot of money,” McGovern said. He made the donation anyway.

McGovern expects his travel demands to lessen in July, when he will no longer be vice chairman of The Rotary Foundation’s board of trustees. He’ll serve on the board until July 2016. In the meantime, it’s the goal of the International PolioPlus Committee to eradicate polio by the end of 2015.

McGovern believes it can happen. He’s in the fight for the long haul. He views the Philippines as an example for the rest of the world. The island nation hasn’t had a reported case of polio since 1993.

“I’ll still be working on polio until it gets done,” McGovern said. “It was a thrill last month to stand in the spot in the Philippines where the first vaccine drops were given by Rotary in 1979. If we can do it in the Philippines, why can’t we do it everywhere?”

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