Editor’s note: Melanie Groves is Pete Feigal’s longtime partner and professional colleague. Her comments, from a speech she prepared, are excerpted below.
When Access Press Editor/Executive Director Tim Benjamin called to tell us about the honor of Pete Feigal receiving the Charlie Smith award, he asked if I could find a few nice things to say about Pete. It isn’t often that I get to tell people about all the things Feigal does. He is an amazing man who has transformed many lives, especially mine.
I’d like to give you just a glimpse of what our life is like. Tuesday, 5:30 a.m., we went to our local High School to vote. Then we drove five hours to Bemidji to do radio interviews and inspire the folks at Hope House drop-in center. Wednesday. Feigal spoke to Bemidji high school classes. For lunch he did grand rounds for the local hospital. Then it was back to the school for a big community program to get the parents, students, teachers and school staff all on the same page with information about mental illness. We stayed late into the evening talking individually with people who need extra hope and help. Thursday, Feigal spoke to students at the Catholic school, and then went to training at an occupational training center to motivate underfunded, overextended staff. Afterward a woman told Feigal she heard him speak at the State Capital eight years before. She said it made her want to “do what Pete does!” She has been writing and speaking about her own struggle with mental illness ever since. We spent the evening with a friend and her daughter who struggle terribly with mental illness and need encouragement. Friday, we visited the school at the Red Lake Reservation, site of the terrible shooting a couple of years ago. We work there on a regular basis. Feigal is somehow able to disarm even the most jaded kids and touch their hearts. We sped back to the Twin Cities, changing into good clothes on the way (Pete’s idea of “dressing up” means throwing on his Harley tie). We made it to St. Paul just in time for the Charlie Smith Award banquet.
In an average year, Feigal speaks to 65,000 kids in high schools, juvenile detention centers, and mentor programs. He speaks at places of worship, pastoral conferences, retreats and major corporations. He has taught at the Centers for Disease Control and the University of Minnesota Medical School. He worked with rescue workers from Ground Zero during 9/11. He works with veterans. He works with inmates and has developed a training program for law enforcement and emergency services on mental illness-related calls.
Feigal works with organizations for the mentally ill and their families. After he first spoke for the National Association for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) Hennepin County affiliate, they immediately made him president. Attendance and membership increased so much that when his term ended; the board changed the bylaws so he could serve another year, and then made him president emeritus.
And he never even graduated from high school. Feigal does all this without an office, staff or budget. Challenged by multiple sclerosis, depression and now blindness, he answers e-mails and phone calls every day from people around the country looking for hope or help.
This work has become his job, his calling and his mission. Payment for his services is never an issue. Wherever he’s needed he will be there, money or not.
I believe that one of the reasons Pete’s message is so effective is that every time he has been knocked down, he always gets back up, eventually.
Feigal never had a “normal” life. He was an intelligent and gifted boy. He was diagnosed with depression at 13, hospitalized in a locked mental ward at 15, dropped out of school and left home because of the pity and shame he felt from his community at 17. Feigal wandered until he found something that he felt passionate about: riding, fixing and racing motorcycles. This short career came to (literally) a crashing halt. After more years of wandering, he charmed his way into the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He discovered a talent for acting, eventually becoming a professional until he was knocked off the boards by multiple sclerosis. Being immobilized gave Feigal the time to develop a talent for drawing. He became an award-winning artist with his originals hanging in galleries, private collections and museums. Then, within a month of being inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame as Artist of the Year, Feigal lost the remainder of his eyesight to the MS.
He wanted to increase the understanding and to break the terrible stigma that plagues people struck with these devastating illnesses. With this new understanding he helps us to lose our shame, rediscover our voices and find hope for our futures. He has found ways to engage people and help them understand that we’ve all had our hearts broken in some way. The tragedies and problems we face don’t have to destroy us. They can be gifts and teachers in our lives, and no matter how dark things become, there is always hope.
Feigal has now become a national inspirational speaker, an ambassador of hope and recovery, and a kind of folk hero to mental health consumers around the country. He likes to think of himself as a kind of mental health male centerfold, although he knows in reality that he is kind of a professional mentally ill person.
He has become an award-winning writer, sharing his own story and the insights of others who inspire him with their wisdom and courage. Of all the places that Feigal has been published, his favorite has been and will always be Access Press. The greatest editors he has ever worked with are Charlie Smith and Tim Benjain.
Pete’s message gets inside of you, breaks open your heart, touches your soul, endows you with hope and you will never be the same.
We all love you, Pete, and thank you