Club News

Lead story: Holiday parade organizer honored as 2017 Woman of the Year

Mary Lou Conragan helps with Cecelia’s Closet, Kiwanis Club

Published in the January 4-17, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photo by Marty Cheek
Mary Lou Conragan, left, this year’s Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce’s Woman of the Year honoree, with Cecelia Ponzini, 2014 Woman of the Year, who nominated her for the award.

Dressed in sweats, Mary Lou Conragan started the morning of Nov. 29 assisting workers in her Morgan Hill home who were busy putting in copper pipes. About 10 a.m., the front doorbell rang and she opened it to see her friend Cecelia Ponzini standing on the porch with a bouquet of flower. Behind Ponzini was a group of staff and ambassadors from the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce.

A puzzled look crossed Conragan’s face as the group shouted out “Congratulations!”

“You are Morgan Hill’s Woman of the Year,” said John Horner, Chamber CEO/president in announcing the reason for the surprise honor.

“You know I have eight plumbers in my house,” Conragan said in shock. “I was definitely thinking about copper piping. I wasn’t thinking of all these people. Cecelia said she would drop by, and then there was the mob scene, but I’m glad to see you all.”

Chamber ambassador Leonette Stafford said jokingly, “We all came here to check to make sure you had your permit for the piping.”

“I’ve got it in the desk,” Conragan shot back.

More congratulations and hugs came to the woman as it started dawning on her that she would be the 2017 Woman of the Year, one of the most prestigious honors in the community.

“John, do I have to ride in your float?” she joked, referring to the Chamber’s tradition of having its various celebrants of the year participate in Freedom Fest’s Independence Day Parade and the Christmas Parade. Conragan and the seven other honorees would also be honored at the 2017 Celebrate Morgan Hill gala, which will be held Feb. 25 at the Morgan Hill Community and Cultural Center.

“Wasn’t I astonished?” she asked several times, and got more hugs. Several people pointed cameras and phones at her as she posed with the Chamber of Commerce staff, board members and ambassadors. Mayor Steve Tate arrived too late for the surprise moment and the gang got into a group photo on Conragan’s front lawn.

Photo by Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce
From left, Chamber of Commerce CEO/President John Horner, Mayor Steve Tate, Laura Gonzalez Escoto, chamber ambassador Leonette Stafford, 2017 Woman of the Year Mary Lou Conragan, Edward Boss Prado Foundation Executive Director Cecelia Ponzini, chamber Chairman of the Board Robert Airoldi, and chamber Vice-chairman Sunday Minnich after Conragan was surprised with her award.

Ponzini nominated Conragan because of her friend’s extensive involvement in various organizations. These include the Edward Boss Prado Foundation’s Cecelia Closet and the Morgan Hill Kiwanis Club nonprofit organization, where she serves on the board as president. She’s locally famous as the Kiwanis’s key leader in organizing downtown’s annual Holiday of Lights Parade in early December.

“Mary Lou is not only with the Kiwanis but she volunteers in many other organizations throughout our community and far beyond our community,” Ponzini said. “She is the first one to say, ‘Let me help.’ She’s always at Cecelia’s Closet every Tuesday, pulling weeds if needed. She’s a great woman. She’s a tough cookie.”

The Holiday of Lights Parade brings thousands of families and other people together to kick-off the wintertime festivities with a celebration of children and Santa Claus’s traditional arrival to town on the Magic Ship of Christmas. The event likely wouldn’t happen without Conragan. She spends many hours every year getting the street closure permits for the parade, working with organizations to get their floats in, and serving as traffic director on the evening of the parade.

“She does 80 percent of the work organizing the Holiday Parade. You’ll see her out there organizing floats and people in the parade,” said Horner. “The parade could not have happened without all the Kiwanis and Key Club volunteers. They were amazing. They joyfully gave of their time and expertise to make this a wonderful night for the Morgan Hill.”
Typical of Conragan’s style of leadership, she downplays her involvement and credits her fellow Kiwanis for being the team to make the holiday parade happen.

“The Kiwanis Club is all about service to Morgan Hill and their children. Our motto is: ‘Saving the children of the world, one child, one community at a time.’ What better way than having this lovely parade. We’ve partnered with the city of Morgan Hill and the downtown association, plus Boy Scouts, Music in Motion and Bay Belles to bring it together — plus all the amazing volunteer parade entrants.”

Conragan is also involved with the Kiwanis in providing a series of scholarship awards given to students in the Morgan Hill Unified School District each spring. The group also works on other projects, putting on the Senior Breakfast and Special Olympics events, providing Fourth of July flags, and giving Key Club sponsorship and many other projects.

“The club is much more, fun, sportive of each other and ready with a helping hand to those in need in community we all love,” Conragan said. “We hope to make Morgan Hill a great place to live.”

Tate appraised the 2017 Woman of the Year’s commitment to the community by saying she was an integral part of making Morgan Hill a city with a high quality of life.
“What would we do without her? How would we have a Christmas parade? Without Mary Lou, how would we have a Kiwanis Club that does just so many wonderful things in the community?” he said. “We would be just devoid and unable to get along. She is definitely a part of the glue of the community that makes our community so special.”

Conragan was born in Missouri and grew up on a farm located near Kansas City. It was there in the heartland of America that she learned the values of honesty, hard work and helping others. Later, she moved to Silicon Valley and for 26 years worked in the manufacturing division of chip-maker Intel. She moved to Morgan Hill in 2004 when she retired because she wanted to be near her son, David Conragan, daughter-in-law, Nicole Conragan, and her grandchildren who live in San Martin.

And in her post-career years, she uses her time volunteering with local organizations in order to help others.

“I get to feel more human,” she said. “That sounds strange. But I’ve been involved in something since I’ve been a child, whether it was working on the farm or teaching or working for Intel. And when I retired, I needed something to fill my days and find things to feel my days. I mean, Cecelia will keep you busy, Kiwanis will keep you busy. It’s a good way to live life.”