Person of the Week
From Global to Local: Peggy Lyons Shifts Her Purpose
Peggy Lyons combines her knowledge in the financial and investment banking industry, her volunteer experience in various town services, and a global perspective to her position as first selectman for the Town of Madison. (Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Source | Buy This Photo)
As newly elected first selectman serving as the chief executive and chief administrative officer of the Town of Madison, Peggy Lyons will be focused on details large and small of small-town government. When she does so, however, she’ll also bring a global perspective gained through previous jobs and education that sent her around the country and the world.
With a passion for travel, she has journeyed to places where she witnessed some world events that many only vicariously experienced through the evening news or the front page of the daily papers.
The lure of traveling hit Peggy early on.
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to live abroad, to travel, and explore. And that really is what drove a lot of my professional interests,” she says.
Gaining an International Perspective
When Peggy studied abroad in college, she had a glimpse of an isolated place that has since been liberated: East Berlin.
The Berlin Wall was constructed to divide a city already separated by political beliefs. West Berlin was affiliated with West Germany; East Berlin was controlled by the Soviet Union.
Built in the dead of night on Aug. 13, 1961 with barbed wire and cinder blocks, the Berlin Wall halted the migration of East Berliners to the West. It was later fortified by another series of reinforced concrete walls and barbed wire, along with attack dogs, watch towers, and armed military personnel authorized to shoot anyone who dared to cross the wall.
For close to three decades, the Berlin Wall was perhaps the most tangible symbol of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain between the West and Soviet-led states. When the wall fell on the night of Nov. 9, 1989 as a result of a peaceful revolution, its collapse was as celebrated as its construction was criticized.
Before the wall’s collapse, Peggy took part in the Denmark International Studies program at Cornell University, living in Copenhagen for six months.
“What’s interesting is that this was back in pre-Cold War, right before the Berlin Wall fell,” she explains. “Scandinavia had kind of a unique relationship with Russia and that part of the world. So, a lot of our courses were directed toward East-West business, business relations, and kind of dealing with that. And so, we toured what was East Germany and Poland as part of our educational programs. I got to see a little bit behind the Iron Curtain…and it was just fascinating, and it was right before it all started to unravel.”
Her studies led her to a career in investment banking in New York, where she lived. She was hired by companies such as Merrill Lynch from 1990 to 1992 and Swiss Bank Corporation (which later underwent acquisitions and mergers) from 1992 to 1999.
While at Swiss Bank, Peggy was sponsored by the company to obtain her master’s degree in business administration through the Wharton Executive MBA or WEMBA program.
She explains that the WEMBA was an intense program so that “rather than living and going to school full time, you work full time but go to school on block chunks during the year.” Thus, vacations and weekends were spent in Philadelphia during her MBA years.
Shortly after she completed her MBA, Swiss Bank gave Peggy her second opportunity to live and work abroad, this time in London from 1996 to 1998. It was then that she again witnessed a momentous global event.
When Princess Diana died from injuries sustained from a car accident in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997, Britons and international dignitaries mourned her death in an unprecedented gathering at her funeral in London. Countless more watched the news coverage; more than two billion viewed the funeral event on television.
Peggy was living in South Kensington at the time and joined the crowd of mourners.
“I do think of the Princess Diana [funeral] because it’s one of those iconic moments that everybody kind of remembers. I was living in London at the time, so it was so much more intense than [for] somebody who might [be] living here in the States,” she says.
She recalls seeing “thousands of bouquets in front of Kensington Palace.” She adds that the funeral procession, “when they went down Kensington High Street with her coffin…was like being in the middle of Central London and [everyone was] silent.”
Closer to Home
After two years working in London, Peggy returned to the U.S. and was rehired by Merrill Lynch in 1999. She lived in the upper east side of Manhattan at the time and commuted downtown to the Merrill Lynch headquarters.
Like most New Yorkers, Peggy was shaken by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
She was running late on Sept. 11, 2001 and was in a cab on her way to work when she took a call from her father, who had worked at the Federal Aviation Administration and was employed at Delta Airlines at the time.
Her father warned her to turn around and avoid downtown. Unsure of what to do, she continued to make her way downtown until she saw the smoke, and at least three fire trucks sped past her cab.
The 9/11 attacks brought memories of the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. She was home sick that day, but she recalls getting in touch with coworkers at Swiss Bank where she worked at the time.
“I was at home and I was talking to them and I could hear sirens blaring,” she says.
Although one of her friends called her “the near-miss person” because she narrowly missed the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and 2001, both events affected her perspective and goals. She began to reevaluate her purpose and priorities.
She realized that gaining financial success and making business deals did not give her the fulfillment she thought she would have.
She also read the profiles of the 9/11 victims in The New York Times series, “Portraits of Grief,” which gave her pause.
“You have life events happen and you start reflecting on [them] and you realize you want a different turn,” she says.
Her soul searching led her to seek other opportunities outside of the banking industry. She was employed by General Electric and Deloitte and Touche, but the years with those companies didn’t give her the fulfillment she was seeking and turned out to be a transition for her to find a better purpose.
After she married David in 2007 and had their two children, now aged 10 and 7, she knew family life gave her more satisfaction and she stayed home for 10 years to care for the family.
Volunteering for the town also gave her a sense of accomplishment. She fell in love with Madison, the town in which her husband grew up. It’s the same town where she knows her children can grow and thrive.
More recently, she has served in the town’s Board of Finance and on the police commission.
Her exposure to Madison’s services gave her a desire to serve the town and its residents. She knew that the experience and insights she gained from working in the financial and banking industry could help the town of Madison.
“I just felt like the town government wasn’t necessarily getting it, about the demands and needs of the community,” she says.
“I think that that was why I chose a new career path and part of that is serving my community through government. But it was also developing a more robust personal life, and family to me is so critical. It was a part of my life growing up and then I got distracted with career…and now I feel like I’ve come back and so…I see Madison as an opportunity to have this high-quality life where you have a wonderful career here and then also raise a family.”
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