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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 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.

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.

 

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