Margaret Dunning did laps around competition into 100s

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Margaret Dunning of Plymouth was a month shy of 105 when she died Sunday, and her friends were surprised at her passing — which says a lot about the way she lived.

A 2013 Detroit News Michiganian of the Year, she was in California on a weekend trip where she competed in a charity road rally, charmed Jay Leno and sat in the Batmobile.

Margaret Dunning, a 2013 Detroit News Michiganian of the Year, sits in the Plymouth Historical Museum, to which she donated more than $1 million.

Only two years ago, Dunning drove three laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in her beloved 1930 Packard 740 roadster. That earned her a spot last fall in the annual book of amazements from Ripley's Believe It Or Not, which left her laughing.

"Life has been wonderful," she said then. "I thoroughly recommend it."

Both famed and revered in her city for her generosity and her sense of adventure, Dunning was a success in business, a renowned automobile collector, and a fair hand with a wrench.

Among her favorite causes were the Plymouth Historical Museum, to which she donated more than $1 million over the years, and the Plymouth District Library, which sits on land donated by Dunning and her mother.

Until recently, she would personally change the oil and spark plugs in her Cadillacs — a 1966 DeVille and a 1975 Eldorado convertible, and the 2003 DeVille that served as her daily commuter.

She joked about collecting more speeding tickets than cars, and she seemed ageless, even though the New York Times and USA Today gleefully told the nation how old and exceptional she was.

Her friend Pat Thomas, the retired director of the library, was among those who was amazed to be amazed at a centenarian's death.

"When she turned 100," Thomas said, "somebody asked her what was next. She said, 'I'm working on the second hundred.' "

Dunning died in Santa Barbara of a head injury sustained in a fall outside a restaurant at that city's harbor. Funeral details are pending from Schrader-Howell Funeral Home in Plymouth.

Friend JoAnne Clements, whose husband Daniel was her long-time mechanic and car guru, said in an email that Dunning stumbled after she pulled away from the two people supporting her arms and began to run down a flight of stairs.

"This woman lived," said Michael Pappas of Plymouth, who serves on the boards of the museum and library. He had recently tried to arrange a lunch with Dunning and the new library director, "and she said, 'Well, I have to go to Houston, and then I have to go to California.'

"There was no sense of urgency."

Dunning was born in Redford Township to Charles and Bessie Dunning, who had a dairy farm. At age 10, she lost control of the family's Overland touring car and crashed into a barn, but damage to the structure and her spirit were minimal.

Her father died two years later, and she became her mother's chauffeur in a Model T she would repair herself. They moved to Plymouth when she was 12 or 13, and she remained in the same house for the next nine-plus decades.

Margaret Dunning, at 101, sits on the running board of her 1930 Packard 740, which she drove for three laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2013.

Dunning spent two years at the University of Michigan, but left amid the financial pressures of the Great Depression. In a Detroit News interview after her Michiganian of the Year selection, she told of going door-to-door to ask depositors to leave their money a bit longer in the bank where her mother held stock.

Ultimately, Dunning became president of a credit union and owner of a clothier that she expanded into a department store in downtown Plymouth before selling it in 1968.

Barely 5-foot tall, she managed to be authoritative without seeming demanding, Pappas said. He recalled coming home from board meetings and marveling to his wife, "This woman doesn't even wear glasses."

She liked her cheeseburgers rare, accompanied by onion rings, and when Pappas suggested she select the toppings for a pizza at lunch one day, she responded with one word: "Meat."

A legend on the concours circuit, she attended 14 shows as recently as two years ago. Never married — "A bunch of smart men out there," she said — she devoted herself to cars, causes and trusted companions.

Her final road trip began Thursday with a flight to Los Angeles. Friday, Clements said, she toured Leno's legendary classic car warehouse, receiving both a bouquet and a goodbye hug.

The rally the next day began with a surprise appearance by the Batmobile, and Dunning happily took a seat behind the wheel. Then came more riding on Sunday, a waterfront lunch and an unfortunate misstep, the end of a glorious day and an astonishing life.

"My mother was always talking about what a beautiful world this is," she had told the News at 102. "Now that I'm past 100, I'm beginning to believe her."