'Never Be Afraid to Fail' By Diana Henry

She went from standing in a small one-room school in the 1950’s, to standing with some of the most influential people in the United States. Thelma Duggin ‘71 pinches herself as she reflects on her life.

Her story begins in Mobile, on Mon Luis Island in Alabama where she attended a one-room school through sixth grade. Duggin’s mother was her first grade teacher. “She expected more of me than anybody else in class,” she recalled.

In seventh grade, it was time to attend the ‘big city school’ in Mobile. Duggin vividly remembers the day she learned she needed glasses.

“My teacher told me to have my eyes checked because she thought my poor grades that year, unlike previous years, were due to not being able to see the blackboard,” she said. “She was right. I got glasses and sat on my front porch that summer and read and read and read. I was a straight A student in eighth grade. I credit her for saving me.”

Duggin continued to excel when she went on to a Catholic high school. Her drive and smart wit made her stand out. She was selected to receive scholarships to attend Edgewood College. She followed in the footsteps of at least four others from her high school who had also attended Edgewood College. Duggin wanted to become a teacher, like her mother.

“When I came to Edgewood College I was very shy and lacked confidence in myself,” she said. “The Sinsinawa Dominican sisters at Edgewood College nurtured me and helped me come out of my shell.”

There are many, many memories.

“I made such great friends and made some pretty amazing memories. One spring break, for example, we drove a VW beetle from Madison to Fort Lauderdale. We hit a cow in Kentucky, but that did not deter us from reaching Florida,” she said. “I also have fond memories of going to Wisconsin Dells and Janesville with classmates over holidays because I could not afford to fly home for Thanksgiving.”

In her junior year, she served as a student teacher at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic School in Mobile - the same school she attended in seventh and eighth grade. After graduating in June of 1971, she took her degree back to Mobile, where she taught for two years at Holy Family Elementary School. However, her story is proof one can’t predict where the next fork in the road will lead.

Duggin and her mother at Commencement, Edgewood College 1971.

She left Mobile for Atlanta in 1973, to look for other opportunities. She met with a recruiting firm focused on helping women secure management positions. The firm was owned by two women who not only went to the same high school as Duggin, they also attended Edgewood College: Alexis Herman (who later in her career would serve as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor), and Paulette (Norvel) Lewis ’70.

That connection led her down a new path. Alexis and Paulette helped Duggin secure a spot in the J.C. Penney’s management program. She relocated to Columbus, Georgia where she moved up the ranks as a manager. Yet another fork in the road led her to politics when she was recruited to work for a political consulting firm.

“The only way to make change is to get involved,” said Duggin. “I found out I could make a difference.”

Making a Difference – with President Ronald Reagan in the Cabinet Room, The White House, 1982.

Her first efforts included working at the local level to get minorities involved in politics – voting and running for office. That work didn’t go unnoticed. The Republican National Committee (RNC) saw her dedication and knocked on her door. Duggin worked for the RNC as a liaison during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 Presidential campaign. That eventually led her to working side-by-side with Elizabeth Dole at the White House. She continued to work with Dole as Coordinator of Minority Affairs when Dole became Secretary of Transportation in 1983.

“It was such a rewarding experience,” she said with a smile. “I was at any meeting the President had with the Small Minority Businesses, youth groups and African-American groups. I was so humbled and nervous, but was amazed all at the same time.”

That time in the White House left her well-prepared her for the next chapter.

“I was able to incorporate many of the skills I developed while working at the White House into a start-up healthcare company for underserved populations in New York,” she said. “Most people said it could not be done, but we were successful and enrolled over 9,000 members by the day we went operational in January of 1994. That was one of my proudest moments.”

In 1999, Duggin became President of the Northeast Region (New York & New Jersey) for that healthcare company, AmeriChoice. AmeriChoice had more than 2,600 employees and was so successful that in 2002, it was acquired by UnitedHealth Group (UHG), which was at that time a Fortune 20 publically traded company. Duggin remained at UHG as a Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives until she retired in 2010.

Making a Difference – with President Obama.

However, her political life continued. In 2011, President Obama appointed her to the Board of Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“I am very proud of being instrumental in making Historical Black Colleges a major initiative,” she said.

Making a Difference – with First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden.

Today, she’s the President of the AnBryce Foundation, which provides academic and leadership programs to underserved youth. She also serves on the Boards of the Aspen Institute, the Georgetown Center for Hypertension, and the National Symphony Orchestra.

“I hope my legacy is that I made a difference in the lives of others and that I helped the next generation achieve their best, as others did for me,” she said.

Her best advice: “Never be afraid to fail.”

Adventurous spirit – Duggin (seen here on the right in blue parka) has climbed the 19,341-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya twice.

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