Oct. 16 2013 12:00 AM

Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame celebrates 30th year with six new members


Paula Cunningham, president and CEO of Capitol National Bank, wants to make it clear that she is still above ground, despite her induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame Thursday.

“Hall of Fame?” she said with a laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m not dead. I’m still working hard. You never arrive.”

Six living women with a never-quit attitude, Cunningham included, will be inducted along with 13 women in the “historical” (i.e., dead) category. The Hall of Fame’s 30th anniversary class draws from the public and private sectors alike, from Lansing’s Joan Jackson Johnson, longtime fighter for the poor and homeless, to Marina von Neumann Whitman, a University of Michigan economist and former vice president at General Motors.

“I’m in some distinguished company,” Cunningham said. “It makes me wonder whether they actually got this right.”

Error is unlikely, considering the rigorous selection process. About 100 nominations come from the community each year, according to the Hall of Fame director, Sandra Soifer. Each April, the nominations go to two separate panels, one for living nominees and one for historical nominees. After the sealed ballots are tallied by a CPA, the top 25 votegetters go to two more panels of judges in May. They don’t exactly bat it around over pizza and beer. It’s about eight to 10 hours of work for the judges, most of whom are frequent Hall of Fame volunteers. The board of the Michigan Women’s Studies Association, the Hall of Fame’s parent group, makes the final selection.

Like many women in the Hall of Fame, Cunningham has racked up a lot of firsts: She was the first woman president of Lansing Community College, first woman of color to chair the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and first woman to head Capitol National Bank. The litany makes her zone a bit.

“People often reference the firsts,” Cunningham said with a sigh. “It might sound nice, but this is 2013. I’m hoping that in my lifetime we can see the day when there are no more firsts, where we’ve had leadership of all ethnicities, shapes (and) sizes.”

Soifer agreed that “woman’s firsts” are only part of the picture.

“Most of all we’re recognizing the remarkable things women do, whether they were first or not,” she said.

In Cunningham’s long career, including 25 years at LCC, she has seen opportunities for women grow.

“When I was starting out, the landscape shifted because of a few people who recognized talent more than gender,” she said.

“Now, when people are looking at boards of directors or whatever, they’re actively looking for women.”

Cunningham, 63, said it’s almost as important that women occupy key places outside the boardroom, like the golf course or the racquetball court, where only men used to hang.

“Everything doesn’t happen around a table,” Cunningham said. “Being able to play golf, to hang out where males have dominated before, has benefited me.”

Cunningham had warm words for Johnson, director of the city’s Human Relations and Community Services Department, where she is known as “Triple J.”

“I’ve admired her for a very, very long time,” Cunningham said. Cunningham credits Johnson with getting her involved in programs that help the homeless and hungry.

Most of all, Cunningham is impressed by the close relationship Johnson enjoys with the homeless and poor people she helps.

“She knows them by name,” Cunningham said. “There is mutual respect there. That certainly does not happen just by writing a check. You have to be committed and involved to have that kind of relationship.”

Johnson said she learned to share what little she had while growing up among “the poorest of the poor” in racially segregated Florida cities of Jacksonville and Tampa.

“I’ve been there,” Johnson said. “I’ve had health problems, been discriminated against, blah blah blah.” She skipped over the negatives, preferring to declare the glass half full. “I’ve walked a long journey in my life and it’s by the grace of God I’m here today,” she said.

Johnson, 64, said the Hall of Fame honor is “overwhelming,” but deflected the credit to her husband, Vern, her family, her Lansing staff and the “hundreds of volunteers who come out and support my crazy ideas.”

Before Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero recruited her, she worked for the state Department of Education and in private practice as a psychologist. She has done countless hours of volunteer work and served on the boards of 14 different nonprofits at one time. She and her husband give about 40 percent of their household income to charities.

Johnson started several new programs for the needy in Lansing, including a mobile food pantry, a program that connects churches with troubled families and a summer meal program for school age kids.

“Come back tomorrow” or “we’ll call you back” are forbidden phrases in Johnson’s Lansing office.

“If a person comes down here with a need, we make time to see them,” she said. “We don’t assume they can call you back. Their phone might not be working. They might not have a CATA token to come back.”

One of Johnson’s most recent “crazy ideas” was the Aug. 19 Kids Connect program, which brought 250 MSU students to south Lansing to distribute food, clothes and school supplies to about 4,000 parents and kids to offset state cuts in aid for needy school kids.

Last year, MSU equipped student volunteers with what Johnson called “a gourmet lunch that everybody drooled over.” This year, Johnson pulled a classic Triple J and insisted that everybody eat the same thing: turkey-on-cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit, string cheese, juice and animal crackers, which she finagled for $1.75 a pop.

Johnson said she’s “overwhelmed” by the Hall of Fame honor, but to her mind, the best thing to come of it will be more awareness of the need to help those who are down and out or less fortunate.

She returned Cunningham’s warm words and marveled at her fellow inductees. “I’ve known Paula for a long time, and she’s done a lot of great things,” Johnson said. “I look at the women on that list and say, ‘Wow.’” One of them, Elizabeth W. Bauer, 75, of Ferndale, is a longtime advocate for human and legal rights for people with disabilities in Michigan and around the world.

Soifert said Bauer’s work typifies the statewide and national impact many of Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame inductees have had. Bauer helped establish Detroit’s WAY (Widening Advancements for Youths) Academy, for students who don’t fit into traditional school settings. She worked so hard on behalf of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act that President George

H. W. Bush sent her one of the pens he used to sign the bill into law.

Whitman, 76, of Ann Arbor, was the highest ranking female executive in the auto industry in the mid-‘80s. She was also the first woman on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. She has served on the boards of heavyweight corporations like Procter & Gamble, Alcoa and Chase Manhattan and has more than 20 honorary degrees from universities across the country.

The remaining two inductees for 2013 are Judith Levin Cantor, 84, of Bloomfield Hills, a mainstay of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, editor of Michigan Jewish History and author of “Jews in Michigan”; and Dr. Gladys Holdeman McKenney, 84, of Rochester, a longtime advocate of women’s rights and teacher of women’s history.

McKenney is known in education circles for her innovative one-woman touring program, “Our Fabulous Foremothers,” complete with elaborate homemade dolls that represent historic characters.

The historical inductees are Elizabeth “Bessie” Eaglesfield (1853-1940), Grand Rapids’ first practicing attorney, and Harriet Quimby (1875-1912) of Arcadia, the first American woman to become a licensed pilot and the first women to fly across the English Channel. Quimby died in an airplane crash shortly after her Channel crossing. A special group will also be inducted:

The “Con-Con 11” is the jaunty nickname for the 11 women who served among 147 delegates at Michigan’s 1961-‘62 Constitutional Convention.

Not all of Thursday’s honors go to women. The Philip A. Hart Award, named after a much-loved Michigan senator and civil rights champion, goes each year to a man who has advanced women’s rights. This year’s award goes to Daniel Krichbaum, former director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, for his advocacy of pay equity for women.

Equal pay for equal work, Soifer said, is only one of many issues that continue to make the Women’s Hall of Fame relevant at age 30.

“A lot of the younger women that come to our museum have no knowledge that it took over 70 years for women to get the right to vote,” Soifert said. “They see people here who are role models, but also, they don’t realize that things are not equal out there. They’re surprised when they get a biased job interview. We want people to be optimistic, but we also want them to know what reality is. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame 2013 Induction Ceremony

5 p.m. reception, 6 p.m. dinner, 7 p.m. ceremony Thursday, Oct. 17 Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center 55 S. Harrison Ave., East Lansing $125 michiganwomenshalloffame.org (517) 484-1880 x203