The President's Corner
Many who know me know that I am a huge fan of anything Parma, especially our city’s history. Recently, I had the honor of meeting with one of Parma’s finest citizens. A woman who has served us in many different capacities and whom many of you voted for or waved to in an Independence Day parade. Her legacy of work helped lay the foundation for many institutions that continue to thrive in our fine community. What was expected to be a one-hour meeting, ended up lasting nearly five hours! I found myself enthralled in the story of her life and the fascinating stories of Parma’s past that she shared so vividly. In fact, I have so much captivating information to share that this column will be continued next month. Out of my deep respect for her, I call her Judge, but many Parma residents know her as Mary Dunning.
Mary Miller was born at Deaconess Hospital on October 8, 1937. She attended St. Mark’s Elementary through eighth grade, later graduating from Rhodes High School. “I wanted to be a doctor, but fell in love my first week in college,” she shared. She went on to marry Donald Dunning who went on to become a dentist, while she became a registered nurse after graduating from St. Luke’s Hospital. They brought four children into the world, including a daughter (Laura) and three sons (Jim, Mark, and Darren). They built their “dream house” at 8105 Sierra Oval in Dogwood Estates in 1964, where she resides to this day.
After moving into their home, Mrs. Dunning grew concerned when the developer of Dogwood continually dumped dirt and other debris over the ravine in the property across the street. This prompted several calls to City Hall to no avail. One day she parked her car on the street in front of the lot. The developer called the police who “ordered” her to move her vehicle. “I asked my husband to move the car because I was not going to do it,” she exclaimed. She became further frustrated when a park that was promised by the developer never came to fruition. At the behest of Councilwoman Gertrude Polcar, she attended a city council meeting to relay these stories. “I was shaking, having never spoken in public before,” she explained. Police Chief Francis Szabo would later call her and commend her for her “spunkiness.”
Mrs. Dunning began attending more council meetings and learned that the developer now wished to have property rezoned close to Dogwood so that they could build a high-rise apartment complex, which she and her neighbors opposed. “It was about that time that I read about June Blaha running for city council and I thought, ‘I should do that,’ despite the fact that I had no idea what it entailed,” she mentioed. Being the go-getter that she is, against the wishes of her husband, with the help of friends, and despite the snows of February, she raised the 206 signatures needed to run in a short two-week timeframe for the Ward 7 position. Mrs. Dunning truly broke the mold in Parma, as she was the first young mother ever to serve on city council, after winning that first election in 1967, defeating incumbent Alan Wenz. “I funded that first campaign through bake sales and coffee klatches,” she told me proudly.
“I was appointed to the Senior Citizens Committee of city council, but found that there was nothing in the folder,” Councilwoman Dunning explained. Clearly, coming from outside of the powers that be and being a freshman on council, she was given essentially a do-nothing committee. She soon changed that. In fact, I am going on record in this article and declaring Mary Dunning the founding mother of the Parma Senior Center. “Research proved that the number of senior citizens was going to skyrocket by 1980,” she explained. Many of her colleagues were skeptical of her idea to hire a part-time senior services director, not wanting her to get the credit and due to the future costs. Eventually, Mayor John Petruska agreed to support seeking a grant to fund a director for the Parma Sixty-Plus Recreation Center in 1968, which met in Memorial Hall. In later years, the Parma Senior Center, now the Donna Smallwood Adult Activities Center, would be built next door to Memorial Hall. “Donna Smallwood (nee Rees and now the namesake of the Center) was a single mother at the time, so we hired her to run the program,” Ms. Dunning shared. Incidentally, both Judge Dunning and I want to publicly acknowledge the years of dedication Mrs. Smallwood put into making the Senior Center a Parma institution.
I want to thank my friend Mary Dunning for honoring me with the story of her public life. I hope that you will stay tuned next month for part two of her story. Like me, I am positive that you will be fascinated.
Parma City Council President Sean Brennan