In 23 years as a spokeswoman for American Airlines, Mary Frances Fagan handled questions about weather delays, bumpy landings, crashes, close calls, labor strikes and bankruptcy, not to mention an airport terminal with a flea infestation and the time a suitcase with a buzzing electric razor inside created a three-hour flight delay.
Reporters respected her. She called them back promptly and was always available for a quote or a “live shot” on TV.
She connected people from Champaign, where she grew up; her alma mater, the University of Illinois; the campus radio station where she worked, WPGU 107.1; and the Illinois Statehouse, where she was a radio reporter. Later, she served as an assistant press secretary for Governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar.
Ms. Fagan, 63, died Sunday in hospice care at Rush University Medical Center of complications from a brain tumor. Her illness, she wrote, was discovered a year ago after a seizure that left her feeling “like Dorothy waking in her bed after the twister in the Wizard of Oz.”
While at the airline, she took care of flight arrangements for the actors, directors and writers who came to Champaign for Roger Ebert’s film festival. The Sun-Times movie critic used to single her out for praise at the fest.
“Without the generosity of Mary Frances and American Airlines right from the beginning, Ebertfest would have been a local film festival instead of one with an international reputation,” said his widow, Chaz Ebert. “Over the years we have brought guests in from India, South Africa, Australia, France, Sweden, Spain, Argentina, Canada, just to name a few. It definitely made a difference in the nature of our festival and that’s why in addition to dedicating the festival to Roger for its 20th anniversary (April 18-22), we are also dedicating it to Mary Frances Fagan.”
Former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall–credited for the industry’s first frequent-flyer program–told Ms. Fagan in a recent email, “You helped forge the world’s greatest airline.”
Even the competition praised her. Jean Medina, a former spokeswoman for United Airlines, said Ms. Fagan “was so kind, sharing all kinds of really good counsel that sticks with me to this day….she treated me like a friend.”
She linked a large network of friends in the equivalent of Six Degrees of Mary Frances Fagan. She pampered them at gatherings at her North Side condo with recipes from her 100 or so cookbooks.
They called her “MOF.” It developed from nicknames using her initials, MFF. They came out sounding like “MOF.”
As she grew ill, friends and relatives ferried her to doctor appointments and brought her homemade chicken soup.
“Mary Frances was a really exceptional person, and I say that as somebody who has hired and worked with thousands of people,” said Thompson. “She dealt with everybody in the governor’s office in a professional and kindly fashion and you always wanted to be in her company. She was smart and she was fun.”
Ms. Fagan watched over fledgling reporters when she was Springfield bureau chief for Illinois Public Radio outlet WUIS 91.9 FM. She knew there were lawmakers interested in “session sweethearts” — and she warned young women about them.
“So many say, ‘She was my mentor, I wouldn’t have the job I have if it weren’t for her,’ ” said friend Jan Grimes.
“She was always willing to help anybody out in any situation and she was a really solid journalist,” said Charles N. Wheeler III, former Springfield bureau chief for the Sun-Times. “Just an all-around beautiful person.”
Andrea Huguely, once a spokeswoman for American Airlines, recalled how Ms. Fagan helped her prepare American Eagle’s then-CEO Peter Bowler for an appearance before Congress, “making sure the testimony was accurate and informative.” Then, Ms. Fagan instructed her to take a seat in a prominent spot behind Bowler during his testimony. “It signaled I knew what I was doing,” Huguely said. “It signaled to Peter she trusted me.”
The owner of five mink coats and a white fox Cossack hat that she bought during a trip to Russia, Ms. Fagan was always impeccably turned out. She looked smashing in red. And once she discovered Bobbi Brown makeup, she never looked at any other eyeshadow or lipstick.
Even heading to chemo, “It was a mink coat, and nails done,” said friend Jan Kostner.
“She had to have her jewelry, her hat, her scarf perfect. And Chanel No. 5,” said Emily Johnson, her college roommate.
Ms. Fagan combined substance with style. As a reporter for Springfield’s National Public Radio affiliate, she dressed professionally but would “always wear gym shoes” so she could speed around the State Capitol, Wheeler recalled.
Born in Boston, young Mary Frances grew up in Champaign, where her nurse mom, Mary, and obstetrician dad, George, had moved for work. She graduated from Centennial High School.
Ms. Fagan earned a bachelor’s degree in radio and TV from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked at its radio station, WPGU 107.1. There, “she was one of the first women I ever recall was an active sports reporter,” said fellow alum Gary Mack, a former spokesman for Edgar.
After getting a master’s degree in public-affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield, she worked at WUIS 91.9 FM.
And after serving in the administrations of Thompson and Edgar, she joined American Airlines in 1991. She worked on modernization plans at O’Hare Airport and the quest for a third airport in Peotone, said John Carpenter, a former vice president of corporate affairs at the airline. With her political savvy, “She was the perfect person for the task,” he said. “She was key to our effort to establish American Airlines as a formidable competitor in Chicago” and beyond.
Ms. Fagan had assignments in Paris, Tokyo, Moscow and London, where she was thrilled to watch Benedict Cumberbatch perform in “Hamlet.” She helped create the North American Challenge Cup, the Chicago Yacht Club’s annual regatta for sailors with disabilities, arranging their travel on American Airlines.
In 2011, the University of Illinois recognized her as one of its Chicago Illini of the Year. In 2014 she formed her own firm, Fagan Communications.
Ms. Fagan is survived by her brother George and niece Erica England. A celebration of her life is planned from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on April 14 at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 N. State.