Margaret Fornell Maunder (aka Mara) was born in Montevideo. Not Uruguay. Minnesota.
She graduated from St. Louis Park High School in 1937, after being voted “Most Talkative.”
Margaret graduated from the University of Minnesota’s top notch School of Journalism, then went on to become a Peabody Award journalist, reporting from such places as St. Louis, Washington, Boston, London, Dublin, South America (Colombia) and USSR.
When she covered the one-and-only all-St. Louis World series in 1944, gender discrimination barred her from the press box. She wrote about being denied access. The Cardinals beat the Browns, 4 games to 2.
At that time Margaret became a union member of American Newspaper Guild (CIO). Stateside she worked as the byline staff feature writer for the Globe Democrat, where she interviewed Mary Pickford and Jack Benny. In the foreign field she became a “stringer” for the Post Dispatch.
In Washington she stood with a small group of pencil-and-paper reporters around President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive desk in the Oval Office. Sitting in his wheel chair the ailing President discussed details of the recent Yalta Conference. FDR died in Warm Springs, Georgia, a few weeks after that last press conference in the White House.
On her first journalism job, Margaret sat beside Eleanor Roosevelt on a DC3 from St. Paul to Seattle. As was her wont, the First Lady knitted during most of the long trip. Though keen for an interview, Margaret resisted invading Mrs. Roosevelt’s privacy, thinking that while knitting the busy woman might also be composing the text for her widely syndicated daily newspaper column, “My Day.”
In London during worldwide buzz over Elizabeth and Philip’s royal wedding, Margaret walked through the lavish palace foyer to an expansive room displaying their wedding gifts for press viewing. What a mélange! Gifts ranged from crocheted potholders to a pair of ornately engraved E&P sterling silver — stove lids? All bespoke the affection flowing from the Commonwealth and the respect of heads of state. Later Margaret stood front row at Victoria’s Circle when Elizabeth and Phillip passed by in their horse-drawn golden carriage, returning from vows in Westminster Abbey.
During the dread polio epidemic that paralyzed or killed many in the Fifties, Margaret traveled to a valley deep, deep in the Andes Mountains with a World Health Organization (WHO) team on a field trial of live virus polio vaccine. Concerned parents by the hundreds came out of near or distant coffee plantations carrying babies and small children, each couple hoping to get a spoonful of the pink liquid for their child. Margaret’s reporting was translated into many languages and published with her photos.
In Moscow near the end of the Cold War, Margaret reported on journalism under communism and witnessed the Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate.” The two leaders argued over the benefits of capitalism vs. communism. No, K. did not pound his shoe. That assignment brought her the Peabody Award.
Arrival of three daughters one by one confined Margaret to home ground, where her nose for news trained on the local level. In St. Paul she edited a weekly paper The Highland Villager, her newborn third daughter sleeping in a baby carrier near Margaret’s desk. Once a week when the paper went to press, mom worked at the shop with printers “putting the paper to bed.” At this time she also freelanced articles to national magazines and Sunday supplements.
Not once but twice the kindness of strangers saved Margaret from what seems certain death. One sunny day in Chicago, the 7-year-old went to the beach with friend Vera and Vera’s grandma. The scene, typical summer fun at the big lake, like an inland ocean. But among the crowd of splashing, screaming kids, a woman on a park bench noticed one child up to her chin in water and struggling not to go deeper. Fully dressed and wearing a hat, the woman waded straight into the lake to her waist, reached for the little girl’s hand and pulled her to shore, safe from Lake Michigan’s dreaded undertow. Still trembling, Margaret watched the special lady walk off, dripping, toward Michigan Boulevard.
Years later in Connecticut a 14-year old boy looking for odd jobs got no response at Margaret’s back door. He walked around the house, smelled gas and ran home to call the gas company. Within minutes, an emergency crew found a faulty furnace pumping lethal carbon monoxide into her home.
Her motto, “J’écrit donc je suis” reflects Margaret’s passion for writing, especially investigative reporting. In 2010, after several bouts with lawyers and judges, followed by years of law library research, she published her nonfiction book Those Darn Lawyers. A matter on which she represented her small business became a landmark case cited by many, including the Vermont Supreme Court. Her name on search engines brings up a variety of links discussing legal issues in the case.
When Margaret and her J-School husband went separate ways, she bought a 4-acre farm in Hamden, Connecticut and founded an advertising/PR business.
On the farm she ran a pick-your-own operation with the extant strawberry plants. When they petered out, she had twig-sized evergreens planted. Twice a year as the trees grew, foresters with deft slashes of their machetes sheared them to promote dense and symmetrical growth. After ten years, West Woods Farm became the go-to place for beautiful Douglas fir Christmas trees.
The first big client of her ad agency–“Words, pictures, sounds in mass communications” — was European Health Spa with two locations in Connecticut and one in Rhode Island. They were glitzy exercise palaces with purple carpeting, mirrored walls and a health bar — so different from the stale socks smell of man-friendly gyms of the past. As part of the new fitness movement, the Spa sought to lure the female clientele. Traveling among the three locations, Margaret made good use of her time by sitting in the back seat of her ’69 Plymouth Barracuda, writing ad copy and taking calls on Car 32, her handle on WELI’s mobile radio network. Driver Otis Ott announced their arrival at destination.
More or less on the side, Margaret recruited two friends, a nurse and a social worker, then founded the first home health care agency in Connecticut, HealthPower, Inc. In the Sixties and early Seventies, home health care had yet to become a part of the American health care delivery system. Typically, a sick person needing help at home called a maid service or cleaning company. Visiting nurses provided care on a visit basis, such as to change a dressing, but hourly and overnight caregivers were unavailable.
With the resources of Margaret’s ad agency office, the three women recruited a range of helpers from nurse’s aides to Licensed Practical Nurses to Registered Nurses. They also set up payment arrangements with the State and insurance companies. Their first patient was the retired president of a major steel company whose wife tried her best but was unable to care for him at home.
In response to the dictum, Find a need and Fill it, HealthPower grew to serve a widening spectrum of the community, but things changed when Connecticut mandated licensing for home health care businesses. New rules applied. The company’s hospital-trained nurse lacked credentials – a college degree (BS) in nursing plus four years of nursing experience and two years in public health nursing.
As administrator, Margaret needed a degree in business. She enrolled at nearby Quinnipiac University (QU) in Hamden and worked her way through most of the graduate school MBA curriculum. But new regulations and lack of deep-pocket funding played havoc with HealthPower’s business. They put its founder at risk of the IRS “padlocking” her home for not remitting FICA money but using it on operating expenses. Margaret put classified ads in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times to find a buyout company. Responses poured in. With a valid home health care license as a major asset, HealthPower directors voted to sell – for a price that barely let Margaret keep her home out of hock.
Despite her busy family and business life, Margaret found time for community service, as a Girl Scout troop leader, a baby cuddler at Yale New Haven Hospital, and for 29 years, chair of the USDA-affiliated New Haven County Soil and Water Conservation District.
She cooks, too. On a dare from a boyfriend, Margaret entered a statewide cooking contest. As one of eight finalists she cooked her recipe before a noontime crowd at Hartford’s Civic Center. Judges awarded her a First Prize certificate and $300 for her original recipe for (yes) pizza.
She is now or has been affiliated with the American Newspaper Guild, Women in Communications (WIC), Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), Mensa and Intertel.
Margaret takes pride in her offspring. Her firstborn was named Perinatal Nurse of the Year in Washington State. She traveled to Liberia and Tajikistan to bring lifesaving skills to midwives and obstetricians in countries with very high mother and infant death rates. Margaret’s middle daughter is a designer and theme park artist. For an Indian tribe she designed an activity center in the shape of a turtle. Architects and builders translated her whimsical scale model into a functional two-story building. Youngest is a two-time Emmy Award winner in TV computer graphics. Margaret’s granddaughter is a lawyer advocating for children, and her 16-year-old grandson has won first place in three writing competitions.
Still on Margaret’s to-do list: Finish several books-in-progress and, maybe, visit her birth town’s sister city, Montevideo, Uruguay.
Note: In 2014 Margaret sent an envelope of negatives and photographs that she took – many from on top a long-ago dismantled water tower – in the 1930s to the St. Louis Park Historical Society. We are ever grateful for these images of our town at a much slower pace! Here is one she took of her friend Dorothy Strate as she pops up on top of Lincoln School, which sadly also long gone. Many thanks to Steve Brown for perfecting the photos.