How will people remember Margaret “Peg” Dunnigan? “She was ever and always elegant. Always,” said her daughter Anne Shingler.
Shingler was trying to explain why her mother devoted so much of the last decade of her life to organizing fashion shows and galas to raise money for organizations like the Neighborhood Friends of Mount Vernon and Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. “I think it probably comes not just from her love of fashion, it sounds too pat to say that. She had an aura of elegance.”
And beneath the graceful surface there was a strong intelligence and an instinct for leadership. “Her organization skills were so amazing just because of the brilliant woman that she was,” added Shingler. “She really excelled in having the businesses respond to her passion about the cause, whichever it happened to be that she was leading.”
Dunnigan was an only daughter, and her father recognized her gifts at an early age. She graduated from St. Lawrence University when she was 18. “She was always encouraged, that’s a nice way to put it, by her dad,” said Shingler. “Because she was so smart she was always pushed ahead in school … She said if she had to do it over she wouldn’t have done it that way.”
After graduation, Dunnigan worked for a radio station. But when she married in 1950, her husband insisted she stay home to raise their three children. Dunnigan’s husband died in 1962. Dunnigan reentered the workforce to support her family. To ensure they had what they needed she worked three jobs, according to her son James D’Agostino. “That was a tough time for her,” he said. But although she had been a housewife during the entire decade of the 1950’s she did not let that role define her. “One of the most exciting and scariest times in her life after dad died [was when] she bought a blue Ford convertible after she went to work for Ford Motor Company,” said D’Agostino. “Once she figured out she could buy a car for herself, she could do almost anything.”
DUNNIGAN moved her family to Northern Virginia in 1970 and spent the next 22 years working for the federal government. She worked for the Fire Administration and then with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) when the Fire Administration was folded into that body. Because her position as Director of Public Affairs necessitated a lot of writing, she adopted a pen name from her mother’s maiden name. Most of her colleagues in the government knew her as Peg Maloy.
Shingler explained that her mother was motivated by the desire to inform people about issues that could save or improve their lives. “All the issues that she dealt with in her life in public affairs, she took very seriously. A job was never just a job with her, said Shingler. “The bottom line was she cared about the community.”
Dunnigan remarried in 1992. She met Thomas Dunnigan, who had also lost a spouse, at work-related function. He worked in the state department while she was still with FEMA. Dunnigan retired after her marriage, but her service to the community did not end. “I think she was probably busier in her retirement in the last 13 and half years than she was before,” said Shingler. “Every step that she took, whether it was toward the [Yacht Haven] Garden Club or Neighborhood Friends [of Mount Vernon] she just loved to be involved and reach out to issues of the community.”
Dunnigan chaired the Birth Night Ball three years in a row for the Neighborhood Friends of Mount Vernon, and helped organize events for the National Symphony Orchestra, The American Horticultural Society and the Mount Vernon Country Club.
“She never met a microphone she didn’t like. She loved organizing things and planning things,” said James D’Agostino.
As a member of Mount Vernon Hospital’s development council, Dunnigan worked closely with Beverly Alexander, the hospital’s volunteer coordinator. “She wanted this hospital to be the absolute best it could be and she gave her time and her talents and her own money as a donor to improve the different programs she supported,” said Alexander.
“She grew up in an era when women were not high up in corporations. They were not high up in government.” But after husband’s death, “she just gritted her teeth and did what had to be done and that’s how she continued on.”
“Her brainstorm for the hospital was the event Art from the Heart to raised money for cardiac rehab,” said Alexander. Dunnigan chaired the first Art from the Heart ball in March 2004. She did it again this year, only months before her death. The event benefited the renovation of the hospital’s infusion center. “The goal was to take it from a very depressing and uncomfortable space and turn it into something that would be much more healing and peaceful,” explained Alexander. She said the ball raised $55 thousand of the
“I think that her belief in service to her community outweighed her own concerns for herself. Obviously at 80 years old there are glitches in the road [medically,] and she just believed so strongly in the things that she was doing, and in wanting to do good, that she just wouldn’t give up, and that’s what kept her going.”
Dunnigan and Annie McNeff chaired many fundraisers together. They were also best friends. “She was a true lady,” said McNeff. “She did everything first class. She would get the best caterers to get the most money for whatever fund-raiser she was doing …
She pulled a lot of all-nighters just to make these fund-raisers a success.”
McNeff said she feared Dunnigan’s whirlwind of activities may have prevented many people from appreciating her most important qualities. “People really didn’t know Peg because she was so busy with everything all the time. She was somebody you’d describe as a star. She was a sweetheart. And I’m going to miss her.”
FAMILY was central to Dunnigan’s life. She cultivated close relationships with her children, all of whom lived nearby at the end of her life, and their children. “I couldn’t have in my whole life asked for a better mom,” said Shingler. “She was a wonderful role model. She was not only my mother but in my adult life became my friend … and always a good adviser.” On most Sundays, Shingler and her children would go to Dunnigan’s house after church.
Dunnigan sat down to eat at the houses of two of her children on Easter Sunday. She had been feeling unwell for the past several months. After an inpatient medical procedure on May 18, she had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance on May 20. She was in the hospital for two weeks before dying on May of multiple organ failure after an emergency surgery. Shingler said she had good memories of the last day and a half of her mother’s life. “It was very beautiful, the fact that the immediate children were able to come together … with our step-dad and join together as a family and surround her and start to come to grips try to find some understanding or some peace in the fact that the inevitable was going to happen.”
Before she went into the surgery from which she would never recover, Dunnigan told McNeff that she didn’t expect to survive. “Don’t cry,” Dunnigan said. “It’s not time that will heal things, it’s love.”
“And she’s right,” said McNeff. “I’m just happy that she’s at peace.”
Dunnigan’s funeral was held May 9 at Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Dunnigan’s ashes will be buried in Utica, New York, in a grave with her first husband
“She was all sunshine and at the same time business, ‘let’s get this thing done,’” said Shingler. “She loved life … she just loved life and loved living and loved doing for others.”
In addition to her husband, Thomas, she is survived by three children James D'Agostino of McLean, David A D'Agostino of Mount Vernon and Anne Shingler of Mt. Vernon; four stepchildren, John Dunnigan of Dallas; Ralph Dunnigan and Leo Dunnigan of Mason, Ohio, and Claudia Conway of Woodbridge. She is also survived by seven grandchildren and four step grandchildren.