October 14, 1985 12:00 PM

When Vietnam vet David Lewis began dating Mary Groda, while both were students at a community college in Oregon, he told her of an odd experience he had had overseas. His fellow Gls sometimes found personal notes in the rations packets. “Just remember you are loved and cared about,” said one. “Keep up your good spirits,” urged another. All were signed, “Love, Mary.”

Lewis told Mary that while in Nam he had wanted to find the mysterious note writer and write a story on how she had cheered up the troops. With a giggle, Mary Groda informed him that he had found her. What’s more, Mary said, she eventually was fired from her job as a rations packer. Her supposed offense: defacing government property.

David Lewis, of course, was incredulous. He became even more so when Mary told him more about herself—that she was a dyslexic who did not read until she was 16, that she had been shot at by the police and done time in reformatories, that she was the unwed mother of two and had suffered five cardiac arrests. “And it took me five years,” David says, “to figure out that whatever she told me was true.”

This Tuesday the story of Mary Groda-Lewis (she and David married seven years ago) unfolds to a national audience in a CBS movie, Love, Mary. The film, starring Kristy McNichol, takes Mary from her street-hellion days to the fulfillment of her unlikely dreams. Today she is Mary Groda-Lewis, M.D., in her second year of family practice residency at the Northside Medical Center in Youngstown, Ohio. “Her determination and courage just amazed me,” says McNichol. “With all that she went through, Mary never lost sight of her goal.”

Getting to where Mary is now meant overcoming enormous obstacles. Born 36 years ago in San Antonio, Texas, Mary was the second of seven children. Her mother, Christine, was a nurse; her father, Fennie, an Air Force cook who, upon leaving the service, opened a café. Even in her early years, Mary was noticeably bright but obstinate. “If you said not to do something,” her mother admits, “that’s just what Mary would do. By age 12 or 13, Mary did whatever she wanted.”

No one understood that Mary was dyslexic. “In school I felt like a total alien,” she says. One day, when she was 10, she picked a fight with a boy and wound up with a broken finger. She was treated by Dr. Hi Newby, who “let me go on rounds with him; it was his way of keeping me out of trouble,” Mary says. “I thought that if I ever became a doctor, he was the sort of doctor I’d want to be.”

The Grodas moved to Portland, Oreg., where Fennie sold fresh produce door-to-door. For a while they lived in a house without electricity or plumbing. “We were really poor, and people didn’t accept us,” says Mary. “I was in a street gang. I got drunk on beer and refused to go to school. At 13, I was in a reformatory.”

She spent two years there and was back in trouble immediately after her release. She and a boy stole a car. There was a high-speed chase, a shot fired by a pursuing officer, the stolen car careening out of control. Mary was unhurt but in police custody. Ultimately she was sent to the Hillcrest School of Oregon, a reformatory. One Hillcrest woman counselor recognized Mary’s dyslexia and had her enrolled in special summer classes of the federally funded Upward Bound program on the University of Oregon campus. “If there was a multiple loser, it was Mary, but she was persistent, plugging away at her work,” recalls her program director, Arthur Pearl. In six weeks she progressed from a first-grade to an eighth-grade reading level. “Upward Bound touched something deep inside me,” Mary says, “a thrill for learning and an enjoyment of living I had never experienced before.”

Even that didn’t take immediately. Within 17 months, in 1968-70, she gave birth to a daughter, Iris, and a son, Christopher. She was married to neither of the children’s fathers, both of whom left her. Worse, she suffered a stroke and a series of cardiac arrests, leaving her partly paralyzed. Yet it was at this lowest of low points that Mary finally resolved to go for it all. Nothing, she decided, would stop her from becoming a doctor.

After her recovery, while working at odd jobs, she began going to school again part-time. And she met David. “He was different from any man I’d encountered,” Mary says. “It was his humor, his shyness and his caring.” They lived together four years before marrying. When David landed a reporter’s job in New York’s Westchester County, the family moved East. Mary finished her premed at Herbert H. Lehman College in New York City, but 15 medical schools turned her down before a sympathetic Lehman professor helped get her accepted at the Albany Medical College of Union University. The work was hard; she ranked at the bottom of her freshman class and required extensive tutoring. Mary’s marriage almost broke up. But in 1984 her family was on hand to see her earn her doctor’s degree.

In Youngstown, Mary has settled well into her calling (David works there for a newspaper). After finishing her residency next year, Mary intends to serve on an Indian reservation. As for her emergence as a role model on TV, Mary calls it “an honor and an awesome responsibility. One of the hardest lessons in life is to learn to like yourself,” she says in reflection. “It took me a long time to learn to love being me.”

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