Margaret was born in 1910 on a dairy farm west of Detroit to Charles and Elizabeth “Bessie” Dunning.
It was a bygone era. Margaret reveled in motoring from a young age. When she was 8, Charles taught her to steer his Model T while he operated the controls. She soon conquered the farm’s truck and tractor.
Having Henry Ford as a neighbor didn’t hurt.
She remembers Ford fondly:
Dad would come in and say, “Well, Henry’s outside and I’ve asked him to stay for dinner.” Mom had made huckleberry pie and offered Henry some.
He said that was his favorite pie—I think he was being polite, but he was marvelous just like that.
But at age 12, she got her driver’s license out of necessity. Charles died and Bessie had arthritic feet. The Model T passed to Margaret.
Mother and daughter eventually gave up the farm. They moved to Plymouth, Michigan, where Bessie built the house where Margaret still lives.
Margaret graduated from Plymouth High School in 1929 and studied two years at the University of Michigan. She dropped out at the Depression’s height because Bessie needed her in the family business.
70 Years of Service
During World War II, Margaret volunteered in Plymouth’s Red Cross motor pool, driving a truck. After, she spent several decades in banking, starting on the bottom rung as a teller.
In 1947, Margaret purchased Goldstein’s Apparel on Plymouth’s Main Street. She renamed it Dunning’s Department Store and sold it in 1968 for a tidy sum. Her next act, as her community’s greatest philanthropist, began with endowments to the Plymouth District Library and its Historical Museum.
From 1962 to 1984, Margaret served on the board of Community Federal Credit Union, including 19 years as president. During her tenure, the Credit Union increased its assets from $1 million to $40 million. In 1989, the Board established the Margaret Dunning Scholarship Fund to honor her contributions to Plymouth.
Last month, Today.com featured her and her gorgeous Packard. “I love the old cars,” she said. “I love the smell of gasoline. It runs in my veins.” She waxed poetic about changing her own oil and spark plugs all these years.
The FRAM Group, an auto products manufacturer, noticed the article. In a special ceremony at the Plymouth Historical Museum, they presented her with a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, eighty years after she dropped out. She’ll also get free auto parts for life.
I’m very, very pleased about it. I feel that I’ve been granted a few years that other people do not have, and I am really very happy that I have this beautiful old world to live in.
What most versions of the story leave out—Margaret didn’t need that scholarship. She’s one of those “millionaires next door” and could have financed her own education. Clearly, the gesture itself touched her.
I’ll have to figure out just what I’ll study, but it will be in business…I’m still running a business right now. It’s a trust fund.
Back to that Gorgeous Roadster
Margaret bought it in 1949. She’s given it four upholstery jobs and 22 coats of hand-rubbed lacquer. The Classic Car Club of America awarded it 100 points—its only perfect score.
In addition to the Roadster, she owns a 1966 Cadillac DeVille, a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, and a 1931 Model A. Her “everyday car” is a 2003 Cadillac DeVille.
Ninety-four years after learning to drive, Margaret still makes special road trips. Just last summer, she motored from Michigan to California at the invitation of Pebble Beach Concours d’Élégance. There, she chatted with Henry Ford III and Edsel Ford II, and shared her personal photos of Henry.
Bertha Benz, the woman who pioneered the world’s first road trip in 1888, would be proud.
(Update May 17, 2015—I’m sad to report that Margaret passed away today, just before her 105th birthday. But what a life!)
- New York Times: “Packard, 81, is youngster to its driver.”
- Today.com: “102-year-old going back to college after surprise scholarship.”
- Ohio Beacon Journal: “Her car is 82. She’s 102. Both still going strong.” Packard photos by Mike Cardew for the piece.