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Greeley’s tenacious Mary Margaret Cox was an Angel on Wheels

August 19, 2018


Terry Frei


Trinity Episcopal Church fills in before the Celebration of Life for Mary Margaret Cox Saturday. (Jordan Reyes)


Mary Margaret Cox

The Rev. Jack Stapleton Saturday morning looked out over the packed Trinity Episcopal Church at the Celebration of Life for Mary Margaret Cox, the founder and long-time executive director of Meals on Wheels of Greeley and Weld County.

He was not at a pulpit.

Stapleton came down from the altar, stood at the opening between the two rows of pews and spoke from the heart, not the Liturgy, in a tribute involving both pathos and humor.

“I got to know Mary Margaret early on when she started attending Trinity,” Stapleton said, his eyes panning the crowd. “And at one particular point, she caught me when I was very, very busy or I would have had enough sense to say no. She recruited me to sit on the board of Meals on Wheels. … But the wonderful things that I discovered were certain characteristics. One of them was deep commitment and the other was absolute tenacity. Because funding that ministry was critical. And despite the inconsistency of funds coming from various agencies and foundations, she would not be deterred.”


Reverend Jack Stapleton eulogizes Mary Margaret Cox at the Saturday Celebration of Life. (Jordan Reyes)

A little later, at the reception in the Parish Hall, Stapleton added to that point.

“She could be incredibly resourceful, but she could also be very hard-nosed,” he said. “She would fight for every dollar for her people in Meals on Wheels. She was an awesome, awesome lady. Sometimes she would be the irresistible force, but frequently, she was the immoveable object. She was always very courteous and supportive to her board members. But when we got talking about financing, you could see the steel coming down. She was a bulldog. She just would not let go.”

Cox retired from the agency that delivers meals to the elderly, invalid or homebound in mid-February. She founded it in 1970 and ran it for an astounding 48 years.

Sadly, shortly after her retirement reception, she was diagnosed with blood cancer, and she died Aug. 12. She had just turned 81.

Her son, Stephen Dugger of Fort Collins, 57, said at the post-service reception that his mother at her retirement hadn’t been feeling well, but didn’t yet know she had cancer.

“She went around this room, greeting 300 to 400 people,” Dugger, an insurance agent with an office in Loveland, said. “Stiff upper lip is the cliche I guess you’d use for that. She got herself through the day and then went home and went, ‘Whew, I need to relax.’ And when she relaxed she found that she wasn’t doing so good.

“She’d been getting tired a little and kind of fought through that. That’s the person she was. It was a little bit of dignity for her to say, ‘Well, I’m not going to tell people I’m sick and I’m just going to get up and go and I’ll make it work, anyway.’ She did that as long as she could until she physically just had a situation where she had a hard time getting up, getting out of bed and getting dressed, and we said, ‘There must be something wrong, let’s go get you checked out.'”


Mary Margaret Cox’s son, Stephen Dugger, talks to attendees at the post-service reception. (Jordan Reyes)

The chilling diagnosis came about April 1.

“During the whole ordeal, she never laid down and said, ‘I’m sick, somebody take care of me,'” Dugger said.

Mary Margaret kept saying, “I’ll be fine, I’ll be all right, don’t worry about me.”

“She was always a little more worried about someone else than she was for herself, and that was her whole life until the end,” Dugger said.

She left the hospital and spent a stint in a nursing home, but knowing the end was coming, she asked to go home. Once she got there, she again insisted to her family that they needed to get on with their lives, that they didn’t need to worry about and tend to her. They parried that. Until August 12.

“Until the last day, I think she always had a concern for somebody else, over and above herself,” Dugger said.

Stephen Dugger has two brothers — Matthew, 55, a Safeway manager in Mesa, Ariz.; and Jeff Harrington, 60, who is involved with pollution control systems for heavy industry and lives in Steamboat Springs. The Duggers accepted the adoption of Mary Margaret’s second husband, Jack Dugger. Jeff remained a Harrington.


Mary Margaret Cox’s family sings during the Celebration of Life. (Jordan Reyes)

Jack Dugger died and Mary Margaret was widowed after only two years of marriage.

“Three boys were a handful and she frankly did whatever needed to be done,” Stephen said. “She had multiple jobs. One of the places we remember was she worked at Frank’s Seed and Hatchery, which was downtown. She worked there Saturdays and afternoons and all of us kids had a part. We got various jobs, sweeping the back room and taking care of the baby chicks.”

Then she founded Meals on Wheels. That’s her legacy. (Along the way, she eventually was remarried, to James Cox, but was widowed again after 20 years.)

“I don’t think it was so much her job,” Stephen Dugger said. “It wasn’t really her profession. But it certainly was her calling. She knew there was a need in the community, and it had never been served before. She saw people who were hungry for no reason other than they couldn’t provide for themselves. It wasn’t necessarily that they couldn’t buy and afford food. It was that they didn’t have the ability to prepare and serve and feed themselves. She decided to fill that need and it turned into a lifelong vocation.”

During his homily, Stapleton had mentioned Cox’s “look.” Everyone was susceptible to it. Especially her kids.

Stephen laughed when reminded of that.


Mary Margaret Cox, left, with her successor as Meals on Wheels executive director, Michelle Dwyer, when Cox retired in February. (Tribune File Photo)

“You knew when ya’ done it, because there was no denying that look,” he said. “Stern, but fair.”

Jeff Harrington spent six years in the Navy, traveling the world, and later worked for General Electric. He didn’t return to Colorado until relatively recently, and he regrets that he wasn’t in closer contact with his mother while he was living elsewhere.

“I remember my mother the best after I came back from being gone for 30 years and sort of had an opportunity to re-establish a relationship,” he said. “And more important, I brought my own two kids and my two grandchildren. Mother loved grandkids, loved little kids, especially little boys and she developed a strong bond with those kids. I was able to ‘re-meet’ my mother as a new person.”

In the final months, Harrington at one point went over a map he had sent his mother from his Naval ship, with the course marked with a line, and they matched up the old letters he had sent and his mother had kept. Finally, they had time for that sort of remembrance.

“My single greatest achievement with her is that I showed her 17 moose in one day,” he said. “She had never seen a moose in 80 years. . . We took her to Rocky Mountain National Park. We bought her a cherry pie at the cherry pie store in Loveland, and I had a camping stove where I made a pot of coffee. We were sitting at this little camp site in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I said, ‘Moose love the smell of fresh coffee.’ On cue, a moose and her little baby walked right out and paraded right by us. My mother’s jaw dropped. So we named her ‘Moose Swamp Mary’ after that. And in the course of the rest of that day, we saw 15 other moose.”

Harrington gestured around the room.

“One of the things I’d like to do is meet all these great people who loved my mother,” he said. “Being away, we only thought that she just loved us as kids. I had no idea how many friends she had.”

Enough to fill a church.

And many, many more.