If you were meeting Dennis B. McGrath for a quick lunch in the Twin Cities, you had to hope you wouldn’t be seated toward the back of the restaurant.
McGrath, a well-known public relations maven and a partner in the former firm Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin, might have difficulty making it to his table because he would invariably be stopped multiple times by other diners eager to chat.
Friends lauded McGrath’s genuine interest in people while remembering him this week. McGrath, 81, died Saturday in his St. Paul home after a series of health problems.
“He had this great gift of being able to connect to people,” said former business partner Sara Gavin. “I don’t know that I ever went anywhere with him … that we did not run into people who knew him and he knew them.”
McGrath showed an interest in people’s lives, families and hobbies, friends said. He was well-read, and he often gave gifts of carefully chosen books based upon people’s personal interests.
The son of a clothier, McGrath was an impeccable dresser and brought ties and sometimes even suits to the office for interns and young employees. He served as a mentor to many, encouraging their success.
Bruce Benidt, who worked for the firm in the early 1990s, said a former colleague recently recalled that, “when Dennis was with you, you felt like you could do anything. … I think that’s exactly what it was like.”
While he took his work and his clients seriously, McGrath also had a self-deprecating sense of humor, friends and colleagues said.
With a mischievous grin, he would sometimes tell stories about his young days as an amateur boxer, recalled Ben Deutsch, who worked for McGrath in the early 1990s.
“He would tell us stories about how so-and-so beat him to a pulp,” Deutsch said. “A lot of them were stories of getting knocked down.”
Born and raised in south Minneapolis, McGrath was a graduate of DeLaSalle High School and the University of Minnesota. He went on to counsel many well-known Twin Cities leaders. He joined Dave Mona in 1982 in a company that eventually became the large and well-known firm of Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin. It was later acquired by what is now Weber Shandwick. McGrath continued to work there for several years in various leadership roles, including a stint in Japan.
Friends stressed McGrath’s integrity and loyalty to friends, colleagues, truth and facts.
“He would give advice that people don’t want to hear, which is what a good counselor does,” Benidt said. “He didn’t have any trouble speaking up to people of power. He wasn’t arrogant about it, but he was firm.”
“If I were in a crisis, he would be the person I wanted by my side,” said Kari Bjorhus, a former employee.
Later in his career, McGrath, a committed Catholic, served as director of communications for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at a time when the church came under fire for covering up clergy sex abuse.
Star Tribune staff writer Pam Miller, who covered the church at the time, said McGrath always said what he was supposed to on the record. “But off the record, he would give me information that would lead me toward the right people and the right answers,” Miller said. “Personally, he was deeply troubled by the abuse coverup in the church he loved so much, and once he said to me, speaking rhetorically of the press, ‘Clean my house.’ ”
Betsy Buckley, McGrath’s wife for the past 34 years, said her husband “would always, always tell what he could and with respect to all sides. … He held true to his own conscience.”
In addition to Buckley, McGrath is survived by son Dan McGrath, of St. Paul, daughter Amy McGrath, of Hopkins, stepson Felix Buckley-Jones, of St. Paul, and six grandchildren.
A reviewal will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at O’Halloran & Murphy Funeral Home, 575 Snelling Av., St. Paul. A memorial mass will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday at St. Olaf Catholic Church, 215 S. 8th St., Minneapolis, followed by a celebration of life at the Minneapolis Club, 729 2nd Av. S., Minneapolis.