Margaret Dunning was a successful businesswoman and passionate supporter of her hometown, Plymouth. She was 104 years old when she passed away in 2015. While her longevity is something to aspire to, those who knew her were more impressed by the way she lived. Robert Stulberg, president of the Margaret Dunning Foundation, remarks, “she believed in hard work, she was proud, strong, self-reliant, independent, honest, and a great businesswoman, but she was very humble.”
She was one of a kind. One of her greatest achievements was just being able to live the life she wanted to live in the way she wanted to live it. I don’t think she compromised on the things she wanted very often.”
— Philip Appel, chair of the Grants Committee
Even late in life, she could be found driving her 1930 Packard 740 on road trips or working on it in her six-car garage — which she called “Gasoline Alley” — in Plymouth.
Ms. Dunning was a classic car enthusiast and a regular participant in auto shows and the Woodward Dream Cruise. The Packard convertible won the Classic Car Club of America Trophy at the Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, California, in 2012; Jay Leno presented the award to Ms. Dunning. “She loved to drive and she owned several classics, but she could repair them, too. You would go to her house sometimes and she’d be under the car on a roller. She loved everything about them,” remembers Lois Stulberg, the Foundation’s vice president.
But more than a car collector, Ms. Dunning was known for her big heart and go-getting spirit. She wasn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves to get a job done and could even be found wearing a hard hat while helping out with the construction at projects she supported. Ms. Dunning and her mother were early supporters of the Plymouth District Library. In 1947, Bessie Dunning and her daughter, Margaret, purchased a house at the library’s present site to provide the facility with a permanent home. In 1971, Ms. Dunning gave the first of many gifts to establish the Plymouth Historical Society’s Museum. Robert Appel, treasurer, notes, “she loved the museum — it was her favorite hobby outside of cars. The museum and cars were her greatest enjoyment. “
Ms. Dunning was deeply involved in her community and always helpful to a neighbor in need. When the Foundation was established in 1997, she sought to ensure that the people of western Wayne County would be cared for far into the future.
The people of Plymouth and western Wayne County should know that she cared about them deeply. She really wanted to make a meaningful impact on their lives. She could have done all sorts of things with that money, and instead she dedicated it to them — people, future generations that she never knew and will never know her. She gave that money to them.”
—Robin Ferriby, secretary of the Margaret Dunning Foundation
Two Classics, One Car
Margaret and her beloved 1930 Packard
June 26, 1910
Born Margaret Isabel Dunning in Redford Township, Michigan, to Charles Dunning and Elizabeth (Bessie) Rattenbury.
Ms. Dunning lived on a 156-acre dairy and potato farm owned by her father. On the farm she learned to tinker and use tools, beginning what would be a lifelong skill and tendency. Friends remark on how she would fix appliances or other broken items when visiting.
Henry Ford was a friend and neighbor who lived a few miles away. He used to stop by for breakfast or his favorite, Bessie Dunning’s huckleberry pie. Ms. Dunning liked to tell the story about how Henry Ford talked Charles, her dad, out of selling stock to invest in the new business venture he would soon embark on. It was too risky!
Ms. Dunning learned to drive on her family’s farm at age 8. She crashed into the barn at age 10, but that didn’t stop her from getting her first driver’s license at age 12. Her mother couldn’t drive due to arthritis in her feet, but was politically connected and helped Ms. Dunning secure her license at an early age.
Ms. Dunning moved with her mother to Plymouth after the death of her father. There, Bessie Dunning purchased the property and built the home on Penniman Avenue that Ms. Dunning would live in all her life.
After his passing, her father’s Ford Model T Ford became Ms. Dunning’s.
She remembered racing as youngsters on gravel roads. In the winter, they’d spin out on Phoenix Lake near 5 Mile and Northville roads.
Ms. Dunning attended Dana Hall in Massachusetts for a time and graduated from Plymouth High School.
She spent two years at the University of Michigan and Hamilton Business School in Ypsilanti. Ms. Dunning dropped out of school before receiving a degree, to help her mother with her real estate business during the Great Depression.
Ms. Dunning worked at Phoenix Mill, a Ford Motor Co. plant that employed only women. The plant produced parts for the Model T and Model A, and parts for the war effort during WWII.
Ms. Dunning began work as a bank teller at First National Bank of Plymouth. There, she was a victim of bank robbery. She later worked at Plymouth United Savings Bank.
During WWII, Ms. Dunning volunteered driving a truck for the local Detroit branch of the American Red Cross. She was appointed private first class in 1943.
Ms. Dunning purchased Goldstein’s Apparel in downtown Plymouth. She reopened it as Dunning’s. She owned and operated the department store for many years.
Bessie Dunning and Margaret Dunning donated the property and home for the Plymouth Library.
Ms. Dunning acquired her treasured 1930 Packard 740 Roadster. She had many classic vehicles through the years, but the Packard remained a favorite.
“That beautiful Packard has 4 speeds and I’ve tried them all.” – Margaret Dunning
She served on the board of the Community Federal Credit Union in Plymouth, and was board president for 19 years.
Ms. Dunning donated more than $100,000 to the Plymouth Historical Society, to be used toward building the museum.
The Plymouth Historical Museum was originally called the Dunning Memorial Museum, a memorial to Ms. Dunning’s parents. Her mother, in particular, loved history. Ms. Dunning would often be found wearing a hard hat while it was under construction, crawling on the roof to fix the AC unit, etc.
The Margaret Dunning Foundation was established.
Ms. Dunning funded a $1 million expansion for the Plymouth Historical Society that added nearly 10,000 square feet to the museum
“Margaret’s 1910” exhibit opened at the Plymouth Historical Museum to honor Margaret Dunning’s 100th birthday. The exhibit looked at life in 1910.
Ms. Dunning’s 1930 Packard 740 Roadster won the Classic Car Club of America Trophy at the Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, California. Jay Leno presented the award to Ms. Dunning and declared her the Belle of the Ball.
At age 102, Ms. Dunning applied to the University of Michigan to complete a business degree. She was accepted and received a full-tuition scholarship from FRAM Group, an auto product manufacturer. FRAM also committed to gifting her free auto parts for life.
May 17, 2015
Ms. Dunning died at the age of 104 in Santa Barbara, California, of injuries from an accidental fall. Much of her estate went to the Foundation, allowing the Board to broaden its scope and expand on her wishes.
Photos courtesy of the Plymouth Historical Society