You've heard of the Renaissance Man. Well, meet the Renaissance Woman, Michelle McGowan, who's done everything from work as an FBI fingerprint technician, a kindergarten teacher, opera singer, theater costume designer and yes, even for years overseen a popular Renaissance-period event.
McGowan, who lives in Hollidaysburg, is known to many for her role as "Lady Misrule'' in the annual Madrigal Christmas Feaste at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson. McGowan is also the director of the event that's become a holiday tradition for faithful fans.
"So many people come to it year after year,'' she said. "It starts off the Christmas season in a very positive way.''
Last year marked the 43rd production of the celebration and McGowan has been there for every one, ever since she first started classes at Mount Aloysius. When she graduated two years later in 1972, she received an associate's degree in music therapy, because that's all that program offered.
Last Saturday, she returned to the college to get another degree that she didn't expect.
When college President Tom Foley called to tell McGowan that she would get an honorary doctor of humane letters degree, she at first thought he was calling to ask her to sing at the graduation ceremony, something she has done often in the past, she said. When he told her the purpose of his call, she was
"I never expected anything like that,'' she said. "I was just so honored.''
McGowan grew up in Gallitzin, the daughter of a coal miner with five brothers and one sister. Her young life was marred by tragedy when she was 12 when her 16-year-old brother passed away from cancer and her father died a year later from a heart attack.
But the family managed to keep going, because, as McGowan said, they not only had no choice, but the tightly-knit community of Gallitzin helped them get through. It's a theme that would characterize the rest of her life, persevering in the face of adversity and also finding support from others, she said. She graduated from high school at 16 and a year later went to work for the FBI, where she started work as a fingerprint technician.
However, she had to leave that work a few years later when her mother passed away. McGowan returned to Gallitzin to care for her younger siblings. Again, the town pitched in to help, she said.
"In that day and age, you did that,'' she said. "People in Gallitzin were wonderful. They stood behind us.''
She found work as a teacher's aide in a Head Start program to help support the family. She later received a certificate that allowed her to teach preschool, she said.
Then one day she went with a friend to audition for parts in a production of "Hello, Dolly!'' at Cresson Lake Playhouse, the first musical the theater company staged. They were in the chorus and on opening night, in the audience sat Sister Eric Marie Setlock, who approached McGowan after the play and asked her if she'd ever studied voice.
McGowan didn't know it at the time but Setlock was an associate professor of music at Mount Aloysius and she'd heard something she liked in McGowan's voice. Eventually she helped secure McGowan a scholarship to the college and without it, McGowan said she doesn't think she would have been able to get a degree. Setlock was also instrumental in launching the Madrigal Christmas Feaste. The two women became lifelong friends.
"She has been a mentor all through my life,'' she said.
After graduation from Mount Aloysius, McGowan returned to teaching and taught kindergarten at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Cresson.
McGowan now works as the volunteer coordinator and public relations representative for the American Rescue Workers Inc. in Hollidaysburg. The Christian-based group helps people in need, McGowan said. The organization provides food, household items, counseling and clothing to people of all ages, she said.
"We want to give people the ability to help themselves,'' McGowan said.
When she's not helping people at her work, McGowan is lending a hand elsewhere. A longtime performer both onstage and a presence behind the scenes, she is one of two people in charge of maintaining and designing the costumes for Altoona Community Theatre productions. For her theatrical contributions, she received the Wise Women of Blair County's Arts and Letters award in 2007.
When she finds time, she's been known to alter prom dresses for girls who need a little help at that time of year and are running short on funds. Through the years, she's also squeezed in time to help some area churches with their choirs.
"You find the time to help out if you want to do it,'' she said.
In describing McGowan, Foley said she's like "a force of nature for 40 years on the Madrigal stage at Mount Aloysius and in over 2,000 theatrical productions on more than a dozen different local stages.''
"Hers is a compelling Mount Aloysius story,'' he said, "raising five siblings after the death of her parents before pursuing her own education.''