Lasting mark: Cummins’ first female VP made impact

I suppose some journalistic purists would find fault with the story that appeared in The Republic, Nov. 12, 1976. It was about the promotion of Adrienne Savage to the position of vice president of corporate auditing at Cummins Engine Co.

The fault in the eyes of these beholders would probably be that nowhere in this story can be found mention of the fact that she was the first woman ever named to a vice presidential position in the history of the engine-making company.

The absence of that information might seem a glaring omission, especially since the issues of affirmative action and women’s liberation occupied so much of the national dialogue at the time with companies and organizations scrambling to find women to place in executive positions. In the eyes of the company and community at the time, the appointment was neither a surprise nor a reaction to outside influences.

“Adrienne Savage would have been a vice president, affirmative action or no affirmative action,” said Jim Henderson, who was president of Cummins at the time. “She had repeatedly proven herself through performance. She deserved it … period.”

If there was a glass ceiling at Cummins, Savage, in shattering it, cleared the way for other women to advance based on their abilities and not their gender. It was a singular achievement, but it was one of many. Even after retiring she remained an influence on so many people, men and women alike.

That was reflected in the recollections of former Cummins executive Randy Tucker, who worked with her on preparing the company’s annual reports. “She served as a mentor to a lot of people,” he said, and after a pause of a few seconds added, “and not just women.”

Many of those people have had similar memories in recent days following word of her death Aug. 4 at the age of 87 in a Greensboro, North Carolina, hospital. She had moved to North Carolina several years ago to be near her children, Craig Savage and Leigh Ann Figg.

Her ascension to the position of vice president was only one of many upward steps she had taken at the Columbus-based manufacturer. Her local career began in 1951 following graduation from Indiana University. Over the next 25 years she would move up to such positions as manager of corporate planning, director of corporate financial accounts and reports, and assistant corporate controller. Those were important titles, but it was her personal qualities that marked her as someone to watch within the company.

“I came to Cummins in the ’60s and made a point of observing how people interacted with others,” Henderson said. “Right off I recognized that Adrienne was someone special. She was so calm and reasonable, and others really respected her.”

One of those co-workers who really respected her was Mary Ann McCray, who joined Cummins in 1968. “I remember that when I was hired, Ted Marston (a Cummins executive) told me that the company was aggressively recruiting women and minorities,” she recalled. “At the same time, Adrienne was demonstrating leadership qualities on her own. She was a good listener, and she had this way of making people feel good about themselves.”

When Savage was named vice president, her co-workers looked upon the promotion as a recognition of quality, not a bow to external pressures.

“She was as good as, if not better, than any man in the company,” Tucker said. “We all thought that it was about time.”

She retired from Cummins around 1990, but she certainly didn’t slow down. She added to an impressive list of organizational boards on which she served and in most instances led.

She was particularly interested in the Retirement Foundation of Bartholomew County and the Indiana University Alumni Association, both of which she headed. That kind of community involvement was part of the reason she was selected as The Republic’s Woman of the Year in 1986, but it played a secondary mission in the eyes of the judges to quieter acts of kindness, such as assisting a young, unwed mother and helping an older widow pay her bills.

Adrienne Savage accomplished quite a lot in her 87 years of life. I think that she would treasure among her most important accomplishments those last two personal involvements, helping that young mother and that widow.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.