Mary Ann Corrigan-Davis
Survivor leaves business world
for the school she loves
Mary Ann Corrigan was born on Cleveland's West Side, not too far from her grade school, Our Lady of Angels, or her High School, St. Joseph Academy. This is the same high school where she now serves as President. "I'm not too far from my roots."
She has two older brothers, one younger brother and three younger sisters. Her father was Judge John V. Corrigan. "In the great alphabet soup of Corrigans, my father was V as in Vincent…He just died three years ago." Her mother, Eileen is alive and "has always been very supportive."
Education has always been a major focus in her family. "I never remember taking big family vacations when we were growing up. There was always tuition to be paid somewhere."
She skipped 7th grade which allowed her quicker access to the high school she came to love. "I made life long friends in school. That's the kind of school it was and is." The school, a Catholic all-girls school, is about the same size as when she graduated in 1971.
After high school, Mary Ann was off to college. "I was told I could go to any college I wanted as long as it was in Cleveland and I lived at home." For the first two years she attended John Carroll. Then she left for a year and attended the Sorbonne in Paris. She laughs that when the "close to home - live at home" restriction was lifted, it was in a big way! "They lightened up a little bit"!
At John Carroll, Mary Ann was a French major. She chose this major not because she expected to stay with French as a profession, but because she knew it would force her to apply herself and study. "There are some things you can coast through and fake, but French is not one of them." Learning came easy for her, and she wanted to challenge herself. She wasn't sure what she wanted to go into, even considering law school. "Clearly John Carroll helps people think and learn and consider options."
So at 19, after a by-chance discussion with a co-worker on a summer job, Mary Ann enrolled as independent student in Paris. John Carroll did not have a student exchange program at the time, but that did not stop her. Her French professor helped her find living quarters in an international boarding house.
Looking back, she is surprised that her parents approved this trip, but her mother explained that they were confident Mary Ann could take care of herself, just as she did at home. So - she got on plane and took herself to Paris.
She had a young woman, from a small town in France as a roommate, and even now, 34 years later, they are friends and correspond on a regular basis. "I don't know who was more homesick. Her coming from a small town of 5,000 and living in Paris or me, so far away and struggling with the language."
"That experience really shaped my future and gave me a world view and felt much more like a global citizen."
Mary Ann was pretty certain by this time that she wanted to go into International Business. When she returned to Cleveland, she took some business classes at Carroll and graduated in 1975. She then enrolled in Case Western Reserve where she earned her Masters Degree in Management through the Weatherhead School.
It was a 14 month full time program and she was certain when she graduated she would have a wonderful job in international business.
"I was a woman and had an advanced degree and I was bilingual. I thought the world was waiting for me. I was wrong."
She spent nearly a year going to interviews and looking for jobs. She was always told she had to start in sales. "I would always remind them I had an advanced degree and they would say that's wonderful. You can start in sales."
In July of 1977, Mary Ann interviewed for a job at American Greetings and was told, like everywhere else, that she could start in sales. She decided she may as well bite the bullet and she started her work there. It was meant to be a position for a year or so while she found the dream job she always wanted. Twenty-seven years later, she left the company as Senior Vice President of Business Innovation.
"I had a fabulous career there. There were a lot of 'First Woman this and First Woman that' but mainly it was because I enjoyed the business and the product and the company. It was an opportunity to help people communicate and be creative at the same time. I have always enjoyed communication and words."
During her time at American Greetings Mary Ann rose through the ranks learning every aspect of the business from manufacturing and supply to retail. When she was named President of the Retail Division, she was in charge of 440 stores across 40 states. "Retail is very exciting. I can see where people get retail in their blood."
The business had been going through a difficult financial time when she was given this assignment and she was able to successfully turn it around.
In a meeting with the Chairman of the Board in Los Angeles, Mary Ann found out that American Greetings was buying a business in Australia. She was given the opportunity to run the business. She moved to Australia and stayed there for eighteen months, responsible for all of Australia and New Zealand. "This was very exciting for me. It was a miniature American Greetings and I understood that business so well. It was a fantastic opportunity and experience." Mary Ann was 10,000 miles away from the home office, so most of the decision making rested squarely on her shoulders.
"Just fabulous. I got to see the world. I am fascinated by how much people are alike. When you see the similarities, you can focus on how much people are alike instead of the differences."
Her husband, Edward also worked for American Greetings ("another reason I love this company") as a District Sales Manager. He went to Australia with her but had a bit more trepidation about the trip. He deeply missed the Cleveland Indians and the St. Ignatius football games. He retired when they got home and as she entered into her next promotion and traveled the world, she "thought he would travel around the world with me, but he actually became more of a homebody."
"Edward is absolutely the love of my life. He is the best in every way -and he puts up with me! I think he would be happy if I would retire permanently, but he tells people how much I love it and he is so supportive and encouraging. I cannot imagine being a married woman and being successful if your spouse did not support and encourage you. You either wouldn't be married or wouldn't be successful."
Her last 5 years at American Greetings involved another promotion - to Senior Vice President of Business innovation. She was tasked with trying to drive change into a 100 year old company. She wanted to find ways to make the company more responsive and faster. She felt a responsibility to the retailers to get the product to the market faster and save money wherever possible.
"It was a fascinating job. It was the first time I had a Staff Position... In a Staff Position you are overhead". It is an important part of any business, but not immediate revenue producing.
In her usual, more-than-capable way Mary Ann did a great job. In fact, she says, "I was so good that that position wound up being eliminated." For the first time in a long time, Mary Ann was out of work.
During this time, her biggest civic involvement was volunteering on the Board of Directors at St. Joseph Academy. She had been a board member since the board inception for eight years, including a term as chairperson. Just in time to go to Australia, term limits rotated her off the Board. When she came back, she served another 8 years.
Major change hit Mary Ann all at one time. In a short period of time she was rotated off the board, her father died, her position was eliminated and then she contracted breast cancer. "It was an interesting time"
"You realize how the Lord really does work in mysterious ways. If I hadn't been out of work, I wouldn't have been able to spend those last weeks with my father and be there with my mother. And then over Labor Day I contracted breast cancer." All of Mary Ann's energy had to be focused on getting well - and she did.
But it wasn't easy. She noticed a small dimple on her breast. In fact she showed it to her sisters who could not believe she even noticed something so small. She had been religious about getting mammograms and such, yet it never showed up. What she noticed on the outside proved to be deceptive. It turned out to be quite large and that too scared her. "It's a big kick in the stomach when you get the call. It really knocks the wind out of you"
Being out of work at the time turned out to be a blessing for her. "I made that my job - just concentrating on getting well" She got very sick from the chemotherapy and is not sure she would have been able to work through it if she was still at American Greetings.
She never let go of her faith and knew that with the tragedies that were occurring there must be something waiting for her at the end. "I think it was the Trifecta -lost my dad, lost, my job, lost my boob that frightened me tremendously but gave me strength and a chance to really reflect."
After chemotherapy, Mary Ann underwent surgery and radiation. She lost her hair and bought a wig, but seldom wore it. "I used to be a brunette. I had no idea my hair would come in so gray. But gray hair is better than no hair."
She says "little angels" kept popping into her life. The morning of her first chemo, she got a call from an old friend whom she hadn't seen in 15 years. The friend told her not to worry - she was her chemo nurse that morning.
She did not go on-line to research her illness. She recalls that in business she hired the best financial people she could, but knew she was not capable of doing their job. It was the same with her doctors. She sat at a table with the doctor who had a chemical equation in front of him "as long as a conference table." No one in the room understood the equation but she remembers that he not only understood it, but also was excited by it. "That's what I was looking for in a doctor. It was such a good, positive sign."
She truly had to walk her talk and "Let Go and Let God" and that is exactly what she did. Today she has all of the follow up check-ups, but so far, all is well. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She had surgery without chemo or radiation and is doing well.
This was followed by what Mary Ann calls "this beautiful job at the end of a rainbow."
Saint Joseph Academy
The year Mary Ann was not on the Board they (the Board) had decided to create a full time position of President as a partner to, not replacement for, the principal. Many people suggested she throw her hat into the ring, but her first concern was healing. "I had to live first!"
Eventually she did decide to interview for the job, and 2 years ago, she was hired. One friend told her that the stock options she had at American Greetings were wonderful, but she would find that the dividends these girls will pay out will far outweigh the stocks. She has found this to be true.
She was able to hire a dynamic young woman as the principal and they joined forces together.
"I am now in a mission driven environment versus a profit driven one." Her questions now are things like, "How are you developing students to be successful in 21st century? How are you giving them the skill sets that they need -not just technical skills - collaboration, teamwork, dealing with ambiguity and doing it all in a faith based environment. All of this together makes it so rewarding."
She always applied her business skills as a Board member, but now it is so much more personal.
St. Joseph Academy has long been an anchor in the city. She thinks the students are much the same as they were when she attended. Statistically she reports that 60% are city of Cleveland residents. Many of the girls are the first in their family to go to college. 95% of our graduates go to college. 54% of the student body requires financial assistance."
She finds that many people think of the school as elite or just for the well-to-do because of the beautiful campus and that can make fund-raising a little difficult.
Her love for her students is hard to hide. She absolutely beams when she speaks of them. "They are all a delight …lot of energy! The students say today the same kind of thing we said when we were students here. You can be yourself here; you don't have to worry about impressing others. They value themselves and value their minds, which is a wonderful thing."
Saint Joseph Academy students
Mary Ann is not the least bit concerned about being a single gender school, and has the statistics to back her up. "In single gender schools girls do better in Math and Science. They don't feel they have to dumb-down or worry about being too smart for a boy you like. And I think they support each other and value their friendships"
At the annual Honor Assembly, she is always amazed at how the girls cheer for one another, a genuine caring for the other students.
The girls do participate with St. Edward's and St. Ignatius, the two single gender Catholic boys schools nearby. They participate in the band and cheerleading at St. Ed's and the Flag Corps at St. Ignatius. And they are all part of each other's plays and musicals.
"There is lots of time for interaction but from 8-3 when they're here they can focus on being the best they can be. We really cherish the individuality of each girl."
Mary Ann has made it her mission to know the name of every student, just as she strove to know the names of everyone she worked with in the business world. Whether it is the man who ran the printing press in Australia or a freshman just starting out at her school, she finds it important to personalize relationships and acknowledge the value of each person. People often tell her they are not good with names, and that she has a gift for it, but she says that is not the case. She works at remembering the names because she thinks it is so important. "If you can call a student or co-worker by name it makes them smile."
Saint Joseph Academy sculpture
The school has had a waiting list for the last 4 years and has 665 students enrolled in this years class.
As President of the school, it is her job to deal with the business aspects including publicity, communication and alumnae relations. "My chief job is to be the Spokesperson and bring people to the school. We have such need for our girls. Our financial need is about 1.7 million dollars per year for tuition assistance so I have to be out there telling people what a fantastic school we have here."
The first time she was Board Chair the school built the Academy Center for athletic events. "Girls weren't in athletics when this place was first built."
Mary Ann still thinks internationally and the school now offers Mandarin Chinese in addition to Spanish, French and Latin. "We think in terms of 21st Century education."
She is cognizant of the world around her and is not naïve to the difference between the safe, nurturing campus of St. Joseph Academy and the outside world and college life. As a member of the John Carroll University Board, she is well acquainted with the Dean of Students, Dr. Sherri Crahen. Since Mary Ann has been President, Dr. Crahen has come to the school each year to talk to the seniors about what to expect.
First semester female college freshman have the highest incidence of sexual abuse. Though it is not a "Scared Straight" talk, it is very real and very effective. She also has recruited Dr. Jackie Chisholm of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to talk to the girls.
"It is up to us to make sure they know who they are and help them make choices that keep them true to themselves. If we can give them the grounding that is rooted in the spirituality of the sisters [Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph], they can make those life decisions knowing they are still that person. It is what every parent tries to do".
Mary Ann and Edward, her husband of nearly 25 years, have never had children of their own, but she says she now has "685 daughters. I honestly get a hoot out of them."
Saint Josephy Academy students at
the 2007 Athena Awards
She attends at least one game of every sport on every level and goes to the plays and musicals, even when they are at St. Ed's or St. Ignatius.
Mary Ann is not used to having people know who she is. "I had that at American Greetings, but this is different. I may be out having ice cream, and hear a young girl saying "Hello Mrs. Corrigan-Davis. I need to watch my P's and Q's".
Saint Joseph Academy girls of the Future Leaders Class of 2008
That is not really a new concept for her, and hardly a challenge. As she says, her father was a judge, and the very first of the Corrigans to hold office "… I can speak for my siblings as well; we always knew we were very blessed with educational opportunities and so much more. My father was well respected and we all loved him so much, we would never do anything that would jeopardize his standing in the community"
In addition to her parents as role models and mentors, she cites Joy Sweeney, the first female officer at American Greetings. "It can also be to your advantage being the only woman in the room. But you have to be on your toes and prepared."
Saint Joseph Academy bell
She says American Greetings threw her into the deep end of the pool a few times, but she learned to swim and that was quite a gift. Mary Ann never uses the word problem; everything is an opportunity. "What you can't dream you cannot achieve." She has traveled to Appalachia with some of the girls with an organization similar to Habitat for Humanity.
She feels it is important to lead by example. "This is how I go to Mass. This is how I receive Communion. This is how I sing. This is how I help other people. This is how I live my life."
"I tell people that some of the best perks of this is to be able to go to Mass on company time and start every meeting with a prayer…. If we could do this in the business world and start out each meeting convinced that we are not the center of the universe… we would all be so much better off."
Mary Ann has been the recipient of a number of prestigious awards. She received the John Carroll Alumni Medal, the highest alumni award offered by the school. Her father is also a John Carroll alum. In fact, they are the only father-daughter Alumni Medal winner-team to date, a record she hopes stands for awhile. He was the class of '43 and she was the class of '75.
2007 Athena Awards
She is also a 2007 Athena Award Winner, a YWCA Woman of Achievement honoree and an inductee on the Saint Joseph Academy Alumnae Hall of Fame. Just a few weeks ago she received the 2008 "Simply Wonderful - Women of Accomplishment" Award from Community West Foundation and Cleveland Clinic.
It is easy to see why Mrs. Corrigan-Davis (as she is known to her students) is so effective. She is a born leader who has walked in the steps of those she leads. She leads, not with an iron fist, but a smile and a promise. Maybe the most important reason is that her faith has brought her to where she is and accordingly her smile and her promise are sincere.
The business world is strewn with frauds and con artists. High School is a time notorious for disappointment, loneliness and let-downs. Mary Ann Corrigan-Davis has shattered that image of both worlds and shows, by example that faith, friendship, knowledge and sincerity can overcome just about anything.
Listen to a brief message from Mary Ann Corrigan-Davis.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson - 2008
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