Gail Cunningham Coen Keeps Westport (And America) Beautiful

Gail Cunningham Coen knows a thing or two about keeping things beautiful.

Things like Compo Beach. Westport. America.

Growing up on Soundview Drive — in a house that withstood the 1938 hurricane — she learned carpentry, fishing and beach improvement from her grandfather, Frank Bosco. One of the founders of the Compo Beach Improvement Association in 1928, he passed along his love for the area’s ever-changing landscape to his granddaughter.

From the age of 9, Gail was the neighborhood gardener. Summer renters did not know how (or want) to take care of their yards. So she mowed, trimmed hedges, and “transplanted” flowers between different lawns.

Gail also made money selling clams (a penny apiece) and fish ($1 each). The price included cleaning.

Gail Cunningham Coen, in her Soundview Drive home. It's been in the family for nearly a century.

Gail Cunningham Coen, in her Soundview Drive home. It’s been in her family for nearly a century.

She went to Saugatuck Elementary School, Bedford Junior High and Staples (where she was president of the marching band). After eloping with her husband Terry on Christmas Eve, and earning a bachelor’s of music at Hartt, Gail taught piano.

But playing “Jingle Bells” during a Christmas commercial shoot for Chase Bank one hot August afternoon at Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas’ estate on Minuteman Hill — it’s a long story — got her hired by Promotion Development Corporation, across from the old Fable Funeral Home on Post Road West.

One of her assignments was running spring break for Anheuser-Busch, which sounds like a really good gig for a young woman. After stints with Glendinning, Reach Marketing and MasterCard — as vice president of global promotions and sponsorships — Gail landed a job at Keep America Beautiful.

She began work at the non-profit — the largest community improvement organization in the country — on January 4, 1999, almost exactly 15 years ago. It was, coincidentally, the day Iron Eyes Cody — “the Crying Indian” — died.

Among Gail’s many contributions to Keep America Beautiful, the Great American Cleanup stands out. She brought it to cities like New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and Las Vegas.

Gail was awed by the strength and wisdom of the local leaders she met. She was particularly impressed by what she saw on the Gulf Coast, following Hurricane Katrina. She was in the trenches — sleeping on a wet mattress, eating MREs thrown from army trucks — and watched admiringly as residents of Mississippi and Louisiana replanted their communities.

Gail met mayors all along the coast. She calls them “strong, loyal public servants.” She remains friendly with many of them.

The Gulf Coast drew Gail in. She’d never been there, but quickly appreciated its beauty, its hardy residents, and — of course — its music. Some of the best Keep America Beautiful rebuilding ceremonies featured marching bands and gospel choirs.

During a nor'easter, Gail Cunningham Coen welcomed Waveland. Mississippi mayor Tommy Longo to her Compo Beach home. They forged a strong friendship in the months following Hurricane Katrina.

During a nor’easter, Gail Cunningham Coen welcomed Waveland, Mississippi mayor Tommy Longo to her Compo Beach home. They forged a strong friendship in the months following Hurricane Katrina.

Gail has aided her home town too, of course. Even before joining KBA, she helped transform Compo Beach. During 15 years as president of the Improvement Association — the group her grandfather helped found — she worked with Joe Palmieri on a “traffic and beautification” effort. From the Minuteman statue to Soundview, plantings and speed humps slow drivers — and calm them.

There are now planters on Main Street, police headquarters, Town Hall and Assumption Church, among many other places.

“Beauty is contagious,” Gail says. “It’s not about 150 signs telling people to slow down. What works is plantings, which people can enjoy.”

Gail’s 15 years at Keep America Beautiful flew by. Now, she says, it’s time for a new challenge.

In the years since her piano teaching days, Gail has worked with community groups, corporations and non-profits. The next step, she says, is “putting it all together, somehow.”

She’s thinking globally. She’s excited to figure out what’s next.

Whatever it is, Gail Cunningham Coen is sure to do one more beautiful job.

 

13 responses to “Gail Cunningham Coen Keeps Westport (And America) Beautiful

  1. Jack Backiel

    I’m curious if Gail is related to Kevin, Sean, and Noel Cunningham. At one point in the 1960s I was friends with them because they used to shoot pool. Sean wrote Friday the 13th and I think they did have a sister that I never met. Happy New Year to everyone.

  2. Gail is “THE BEST.”
    A beautiful lady and friend.
    The Compo Beach area has been improved over the years largely due to her efforts and her unique ability to encourage others to participate. And WOW, can she sing and play the piano ! ;-)

  3. I did not know that (the multi-talented) Gail was president of the Staples marching band back in the day. Wishing Gail all the best in her new endeavors, wherever they may take her.

  4. Mary Palmieri

    Wow. I am so impressed. I always took notice of the Compo Beach barrel planters on Soundview that came from my family’s nursery (Palmieri’s now Anthony’s) several years ago.. but never knew about this incredible lady or her accomplishments. How cool is she?? Thanks for telling her story.

  5. Thanks Gail! Everytime I’m at Compo and then drive away…slowly and paced by potted plants…I think about Gail!

  6. Barbara Roueche

    I’ve been honored and proud to call Gail my friend and colleague in Keeping America Beautiful from “sea to shining sea” for the past 15 years. I’ve worked with her in many cities across the land and have had the great pleasure of visiting her in Westport and seeing first hand the beauty of the Compo Beach area. Her endless energy is enviable and I look forward to celebrating her new beginnings this coming year!

  7. Cindy Simmons

    I do not know what the Ms. Gulf Coast would have done without Gail, KAB, KMB and team after Katrina, many hours spent here beautifying the Gulf Coast and giving hope!! Yes we can was our song and motto!!

  8. SINCE MOVING AWAY, ONE OF THE MANY THINGS I MISS ABOUT SOUNDVIEW IS THE MUSICAL VIBE THAT WAS PREVALENT BECAUSE OF GAIL & HER ENTIRE FAMILY..SHE .ENHANCED THE VISUAL BEAUTY WITH MUSIC. …AND CELEBRATED LIFE ON THE BEACH.. EVERYDAY..
    ALL GOOD THINGS…THAT’S GAIL….AND TERRY ..AND TREVOR AND DAVIS..
    HAPPY NEW YEAR….AS THE ROAD GOES EVER ON…

  9. Arlene Lieberman

    To know Gail in any capacity. Is to LOVE HER!