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On a Path of Service

Note: This is the seventh profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

By Christian Taske ’07

Leaders are often inspired by others to do great things. For Notre Dame College trustee Marilyn Cunin inspiration came from two family members who are no longer with her - her daughter Mary Catherine and her husband John. Both put Cunin on a path of service that honors their memory and has made a difference in the lives of disabled individuals and students.

One of five children, Mary Catherine, who was called Cookie all her life, was born with cerebral palsy in 1954. She lived to be 17 years old. Diagnosed at age 3 with a mental age of about nine months, Cookie was never able to walk or talk. But she knew how to love and she taught her family to share their love with those less fortunate.

In the late 1950s, Cunin called Catholic Charities asking if they knew anyone who could provide short-term babysitting care for their daughter. She was given the name of Notre Dame College alumna Dorothy Gauchat ’43, who operated Our Lady of the Wayside, a non-profit, non-denominational organization that offers residential services to individuals who are mentally or physically disabled.

The Cunins drove out to Avon, Ohio, met with Dorothy, introduced Cookie, and the rest is history. Ever since, Cunin has been a leader for Our Lady of the Wayside, raising funds to support the individuals and their families served by the agency. She has served on its board of directors and currently serves as an advisor.

“Marilyn, without question, is an exceptional person who strives to improve the quality of life of others,” says Terry Davis, president and CEO of Our Lady of the Wayside. “Marilyn leads by example, never waivers under pressure, and displays a calming demeanor when addressing major challenges.”

Cunin’s approach to addressing societal issues is simple. When discussing the needs of challenged individuals with other leaders, she often says, “You do the very best you can, but your best must include an improvement in the quality of their lives.”

With Cunin’s help, Our Lady of the Wayside has grown from an organization with three homes serving 87 individuals to an organization that now operates 45 homes and provides support services to more than 300 individuals throughout Lorain and Cuyahoga counties.

“We have all benefited from her wisdom, interest in providing financial support, and generosity,” Davis says. “Her commitment to those who are less fortunate is unsurpassed.”

Marilyn Cunin
Marilyn Cunin has been a Notre Dame College trustee for 18 years.

At Notre Dame, Cunin has displayed that same kind of commitment as a member of the College’s board of trustees for 18 years. She became affiliated with NDC when she took over the seat of her husband John who died in 1993.

Cunin immediately fell in love with the College, noting its size, diversity and mission grounded in the tradition of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Since then, she has been an important part of accomplishing the financial stability and record enrollment the College has experienced. She served as vice-chair of the board from 2005 to 2011, and was named trustee emerita this year. 

“My years on the board have been a growing process – for me and the College,” Cunin says. “The transition from empty residence rooms with Sisters living there to dorms now bursting at the seams with students is very exciting. It has given so much life to the College.”

The College owes much to Cunin in return. A true humanitarian, she is a member of the College’s President’s Club, the Marian Legacy Society and the Lifetime Giving Society.

“Without her keen leadership skills and her tireless work for the advancement of our College, Notre Dame would not be what it is today,” says Dr. Andrew P. Roth, president of Notre Dame College. “She is an outstanding contributor to our cause and serves as a mentor and ambassador to our students, administrators and fellow trustees. She is without question an exceptional person who lives to improve the quality of life of others.”

Cunin’s leadership is evident in her willingness to assist in shaping the strategic direction of several other organizations as well, including the Eva L. and Joseph M. Bruening Foundation, where she followed her husband as chair of the Distribution Committee. Currently, she serves as a member of that committee.

Among her many awards and recognitions, Cunin has received the “Church in the City” Award from the Commission on Catholic Community Action, the “Outstanding Fundraising Volunteer” Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Notre Dame College Fidelia Award, and the 2010 Our Lady of the Wayside Starlight Guardian Humanitarian Award.

“Marilyn is an exceptional leader,” fellow Notre Dame trustee John Betchkal says. “She is that largely because she has, among her many strengths, an unbridled abundance of positive and constructive approaches to life’s easy and complex moments. Her manner is calm and quiet; her effect is firm and convincing.”

By doing that, Cunin has created a legacy for herself, her husband and her daughter.

Christian Taske ’07 is the director of print & digital communications at Notre Dame College.