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Cunningham's Calling : Corporate Commando's New Career Is 'Nurturing' Pregnant Women

December 27, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

OSTERVILLE, Mass. — In a class at the Harvard Business School, graduate student Mary Elizabeth Cunningham was asked what she expected to be doing in 30 years.

Running an orphanage, the Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wellesley College replied, and then, she recalls, expressed astonishment that none of her classmates voiced equally socially responsible aspirations.

They, on the other hand, may have been less surprised when Cunningham catapulted to overnight prominence, first by landing a position as executive assistant and in-house prodigy to Bendix Corp. president and chief executive officer William Agee, then by landing Agee. The uproar over what her future husband (then married to someone else) described in 1980 as their "very, very close" relationship forced 29-year-old Cunningham (also still married to someone else) out of what was by then a vice presidency of Bendix.

Cunningham earned her revenge with a best seller called "Powerplay: What Really Happened at Bendix" (Simon & Schuster). By age 30, she was an executive vice president at Seagram & Sons.

History Comes Full Circle

Six years later, ensconced in a cottage-like office in this exclusive Cape Cod community, Mary Cunningham Agee recently spun her personal history full circle by applying to the state of Massachusetts for a license to run an adoption agency. It's not an orphanage, exactly, but as founder and chief staffer of a nonprofit organization called the Nurturing Network, Cunningham said she has finally answered her calling, finally found the job she was meant to do all along.

"Everything else, everything I've ever done, pales in significance next to this," the former corporate commando said of her service for young professional women facing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. "This is what I was always meant to do."

Cunningham, as she still feels comfortable referring to herself, stretched out her arms and beamed, the portrait of personal and professional satisfaction in an office decorated with ruffled, eyelet curtains and bestrewn with teddy bears, tiny stuffed dolls and other accouterments of the nursery and maternal bliss. Here she was, running a service that urges young women to complete their pregnancies and helps provide them with resources--new jobs, transfers to different academic institutions, even new "nurturing families"--to do so.

"It's like arms have just enfolded you, like a religion," she said.

The metaphor is apt. In her book, devout Catholic Cunningham likened herself to "a latter-day Joan of Arc." As a schoolgirl in Lebanon, N.H., she recalls, she was a favorite student regularly chosen by the nuns to place the crown on the statue of the Blessed Mother. She still attends daily Mass.

In an interview several years ago in a national magazine, Cunningham offered this explanation of her dream of running an orphanage: "I saw myself, frankly, as a nun of some sort. I have considered the prospect of working with men in a more celibate situation, where I'd be a nun and they'd be priests. Being a member of the Church is a little like being a member of a family--like being a member of that corporation."

It was Cunningham's uncle, and lifelong mentor, Monsignor William Nolan, who most strongly guided her religious zeal. Nolan, in many ways her surrogate father, may also have shepherded the driving ambition that surfaced in his niece as early as anyone can remember.

"When I was 5 years old," Cunningham explained, "someone stepped into my life. . . ."

It was then that Cunningham's parents' marriage collapsed, the casualty, Cunningham has said, of her father's heavy drinking. From their big, comfortable house on Casco Bay in Falmouth, Me., Cunningham's mother moved her four children to a small rented apartment in Hanover, N.H. Beyond an annual birthday card, Mary Cunningham never again heard from her father. But so influential was Father Bill in her life that her first-born son, William Nolan Agee, was named for him.

Little Will, as she often calls the 3-month-old baby, is Cunningham's second child, but her third pregnancy. The fact is significant because it was while recovering, grieving, pulling herself together from the loss of her first pregnancy, a miscarriage more than two years ago, that Cunningham dreamed up the idea that would become the Nurturing Network.

Cunningham was shocked when she lost that first pregnancy. "It was something I had wanted so deeply," she said. "I had never thought I would have a miscarriage." In a life marked by meteoric success, "everything else had gone right."

Cunningham said she was unprepared for the emotions that enveloped her following the miscarriage.

"I just remember the most horrible, horrible sense of loss," she said. Many people dismiss miscarriage as a routine process of nature, but, "for me," Cunningham said, "it was definitely a death," and what she experienced "was definitely a post-mortem depression."

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