A Life Worth Living
Though some would be quite content living out their golden years in a steady state of serenity, Maureen Nunn greeted retirement by turning up the volume.
- Written byShannon Sharpe
Photographed by Kremer Johnson
For nearly a decade, Palos Verdes native Maureen Nunn has traveled to Africa to work with residents of a small Ugandan village. Her dedication to these people may seem astounding to some, but those who know the vivacious Rolling Hills Estates mother of five and grandmother of five would not be surprised that she is spending her retirement taking on a huge challenge.
She has spent her life doing everything from studying aeronautical engineering to producing her own television show to writing a book. And her latest endeavor has proved to be life-changing, with Maureen establishing what she considers a second family in this small Ugandan village.
Her extraordinary life was set in motion when she left the South Bay in 1960 to pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University in Indiana. “I think the school made a mistake because it was all men,” she jokes. “I think they thought was my name wasn’t Maureen but Marvin.”
Maureen’s ultimate goal was to be part of the space program, but her advisors forewarned her that the chance of a woman obtaining a job in the field at the time was extremely unlikely. “They said, ‘You can go ahead and graduate, but you won’t be hired.’”
Hoping that she’d prove to be an exception, Maureen returned to Palos Verdes and worked at Nortronics Research Park. “I thought if I delayed it long enough, then they’d be hiring women—but they didn’t.”
The determined young woman decided she would instead pursue a career in her college minor, Spanish. She eventually obtained a master’s degree in the language and taught for decades.
Upon retirement Maureen realized she wasn’t ready to settle into a life of simple relaxation. She was ready for a new challenge and soon found it when she saw an advertisement for a class on television production. The first class assignment was to develop a show pitch, and Maureen turned to her community for inspiration—pitching the concept of everyday heroes.
“There were a lot of wonderful people on my street,” she says. “Some people were raising guide dogs for the blind; others were Eagle Scouts. I thought I could interview these people.”
A satellite company in Texas picked up the show, and soon Everyday Heroes was broadcast throughout the United States. “We got really lucky because at the time, ‘good news’ shows were very popular,” says Maureen.
When the popularity for this type of show waned, she decided she wasn’t done yet and created a Hispanic educational call-in show, Comunidad Latina con Maria y Lety, in Orange County. She partnered with Lety Dominguez, whom Maureen declares to be the “Mother Teresa of Mexico.”
The award-winning program came to an end when Lety passed away and Maureen was ready to retire for good. But her colleagues weren’t about to let her do that and suggested the show Moments with Maureen, in which she would interview ordinary people.
When the cable station was sold, Maureen once again thought she was ready to retire. But her children’s friends, who were having their own children by that point, began asking her to write a child-rearing advice book. In 2006 she produced—with the help of neighbors, children and their friends—what would eventually be entitled Got Kids.
And with this book came an opportunity once again. Maureen was at Camp Pendleton in 2008 with her husband, who was a bronze medalist in rowing at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He and other athletes had been asked to speak to service members. In a casual conversation, a wounded warrior asked Maureen what she did for work.
“I told him that I’d just written a book on parenting,” she says. “He replied that I should come down again and speak to the service members and their families.”
And of course she did, returning not just once but now going down several times a year, speaking to large-scale audiences as well as working with people in small groups. She helps families deal with the hardships that are unique to the military—perhaps most importantly addressing the fallout from post-traumatic stress disorder, the consequences of which can be drug and alcohol abuse, depression and physical abuse.
Maureen sees this work as just a small thank-you to veterans. “These people are giving so much to our country,” she says. “It is such a privilege to work with them. Every time I leave I think how honored I am to have spent time with such heroes.”
But even before she started volunteer work at Camp Pendleton, Maureen had begun exploring other inroads to helping people. In 2007 she received a phone call that changed her life. A Ugandan priest wanted her to come visit a Catholic church in his village—a church that her father had left money to be built when he passed away in 1999.
The phone call was unexpected to say the least—she hadn’t realized her father had left the church money, although she knew well her parents’ passion for the country and people of Uganda. “My mom was an explorer,” she explains. “She read this book and said to my dad, ‘Let’s go to Uganda,’ and he said, “Okay, sure let’s go to Uganda!’ They were fearless travelers.”
Her parents first visited the country in 1971 and visited a local Catholic church. “After mass a priest, Father Mudiabah, came over, shook their hands and in beautiful English said, ‘Welcome to Uganda.’” It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship.
And it was through Father Mudiabah that the family was introduced to Father Francis, a Ugandan priest who moved to Los Angeles to study at Loyola Marymount. It was Father Francis who placed that life-changing phone call to Maureen. “When he asked me if I could come, my mouth was forming the word ‘no’ but somehow ‘yes’ slipped right out.”
She arrived in Uganda in March 2007 and stayed for three weeks. “I thought I had landed on the moon,” she says. “I went to the dedication of the church, and I completely fell in love with everything and everyone. The people are joyful. They have nothing, but they are just so incredibly joyful.”
Thus began Maureen’s biannual trips to the country, with her next return happening in October. It’s an arduous journey—even for the most well-seasoned traveler—taking two days with a layover in Dubai.
Once she arrives in the city of Entebbe, Father Francis picks her up and takes her to a small village outside the city, where they’ll stay in anything ranging from a bamboo structure with a dirt floor to a concrete home with a cement floor. No matter where she is being housed, she is sure to sleep within a net.
“Malaria is rampant,” she says. “It’s horrible. It’s the #1 killer of children under 5.”
Every morning Maureen follows Father Francis’ cue and rises at 6:30 a.m. “Sometimes there’s electricity; sometimes there’s not,” she says. “There’s no running water, so they go to the well and get water that they boil to brush their teeth.”
After attending 7 a.m. mass and eating a simple breakfast, Maureen and Father Francis set out to work with the community—doing everything from visiting the sick, working in the schools, organizing soccer games or simply speaking with local women about their needs. At times the normal, day-to-day routine is broken up with travel to other towns, visiting hospitals or attending celebrations such as baptisms and weddings.
These personal interactions with the Ugandan people spurred Maureen to learn basic Luganda, the native language. “I was so frustrated,” she says. “I thought maybe if I could just say, ‘How are you? How many children do you have? Tell me about your chickens, your pigs,’ then I could better relate.”
And relating to the locals is even more important with Maureen’s latest endeavor. Ever the student, she returned to school two years ago to study drug and alcohol counseling, and she is now taking that knowledge to Uganda.
“There’s quite a bit of alcoholism,” she says. “There is a lot of domestic violence.” So Maureen speaks to men’s and women’s groups about how to cope with these things. “I often speak about using your words rather than your fists.”
She is currently teaching parenting, marriage and healthy relationships to the Marines and their families at Camp Pendleton. She says it’s an honor and a privilege to be associated with the life-changing work and devotion that the Marines are doing.
For all of her accomplishments, Maureen doesn’t credit herself as much as she does all the people who’ve surrounded her over the years. “It’s been a lot of people just encouraging me,” she says. “‘You’ve got to write a book.’ ‘You’ve got to do a TV show.’ ‘You’ve got to come to this dedication for a church.’”
She emphasizes that anyone can do what she does, as long as they’re willing to embrace the chance to do so. “There is no red tape,” she says. “You just get a passport, you go and you make a difference.”
To Maureen that difference can be made with something as simple as singing music with children or connecting members of the community who can help each other. It is about realizing that it is a privilege to help others.
“People say, ‘How do you do what you do?’” she says. “But I’m just an ordinary person who has had extraordinary opportunities.”
More than a pipe dream.