Sitting in Mary’s hospice suite, surrounded by the multitudes of cards, flowers and plants sent to her by loving family and friends, Mary looks me straight in the eye and tells me she doesn’t know what to talk about. I had heard that Mary spent the first two weeks of her time at the Center for Comfort Care and Healing sending letters to her friends and family soliciting donations for the C.R.O.P. Walk (Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty), a cause she’s supported for the past 43 years. I wanted to learn more. Still convinced that she had nothing to talk about, she started from the very beginning and before we knew it, two hours had gone by.
Born in Haynesville, Louisiana, the home of her maternal grandparents, Mary was the second of five children. Her father, who she lovingly refers to as “daddy” was an artist-turned-minister and her mother (“mama”) was a pastor’s wife and homemaker.
As is common with clergy, Mary’s father requested a change of parish every 3-5 years, which she later realized was largely in part to find resources for her brother Paul, who suffered from complications related to the meningitis he contracted as an infant.
Mary moved 9 times throughout her childhood, making friends wherever she went. When Mary was in high school, her daddy landed a job in New Orleans. He thought this would be the perfect locale: it had a place that would help them care for Paul, who was now a teenager, and was the site of Tulane University, where he thought Mary could attend college.
This was 1952 and very few schools required entrance exams, but Newcomb (the all-women’s college of Tulane) was one of the few. At the time, Mary was attending school in a small town called Welsh – part of “Cajun Country” in Louisiana. There were only 27 people in her graduating high school class, but most of them planned to go to college.
Because entrance exams required a foreign language, they sought out the help of their local librarian, a woman whose name Mary still remembers: Hazel Sockrider. Hazel spoke Cajun French, the only one they could find in town who could offer them instruction in foreign language. Valedictorian Mary not only passed her college entrance exams using the Cajun French that Hazel taught her, but she also placed out of beginner French into intermediate French. Mary recalls her French class as the hardest class she took in college.
While in high school, Mary would visit her maternal grandparents during Christmas and on summer vacations. Her aunt still lived in the town of Cotton Valley, the same town her daddy had ministered at years before. While there, Mary met her husband-to-be Kennon, though the details of the story differ depending on who you ask.
Mary remembers that she and Kennon were both members of the Methodist Youth Fellowship Organization, where he was President and she was Treasurer on a conference committee. She remembers it like yesterday. They were 17 years old and she fell in love.
If you ask Kennon, however, he asserts that they were set up on a blind date, when Mary’s cousin, David, suggested a double date. Mary doesn’t remember that at all (“clearly there were no fireworks that night,” she quips), while he doesn’t remember the conference that they planned together. No matter how they first met, something stuck and the two “kept the telephone company and postal service in business” as their romance grew across states.
Mary bravely relocated to Virginia to get her first teaching job. She moved down the road from her Aunt Margarite and Uncle Jim, to be close to family and closer to Kennon who was studying at Yale Divinity School. Kennon was in no rush to get married. One day, while Mary was talking to Kennon on the phone, the widow she was renting her apartment from knocked on her door with a giant bouquet of flowers. Mary thanked Kennon profusely for the flowers, to which he replied cluelessly, “What flowers?” After that, Kennon realized he better get a move on and a wedding was planned.
Mary and Kennon got married in Louisiana, where Mary’s parents lived. The couple stopped in Hot Springs, Arkansas for a few nights to celebrate their nuptials, en route to their new home in Vermont. The elevator operator discovered that they were newlyweds and wanted to know what they were doing there. She told them the resort was “nothing but an old folk’s paradise,” leading Mary and Kennon to check out of the hotel the very next morning.
They drove to Virginia, to stay at Aunt Margarite and Uncle Jim’s house instead. Little did they know that an inmate had escaped a nearby prison, and when neighbors saw lights on at Margarite and Jim’s house, knowing that they were away at the wedding of their niece, someone called the police. Much to Mary and Kennon’s surprise, they were startled when they looked out the window to see the house surrounded by police officers, convinced that the escaped inmate was in the house. A honeymoon to remember!
After moving to Vermont, Mary got a teaching job and taught for two years prior to starting a family. Once their son David was born, she became a full-time homemaker. Soon after, their daughter Laura was born, and the family moved to Dutchess County, New York. She marvels that their children lived in the same place throughout their childhoods, a huge contrast to her own upbringing.
When David went to college, Mary decided to return to the workforce for 6 years to help put David (and later Laura) through undergraduate college. She got a job as the Director of Volunteer Services at Saint Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie (now Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital) and it was the ideal fit for her. Rather than the six years that she intended, she kept the position for 20 years and only decided to stop working because their first grandchild was on the way and she felt the hospital would benefit if the hospital “infused new blood” into the position. For the twenty years that followed, she became a professional volunteer.
Mary spent her retirement supporting many diverse causes, including the League of Women Voters, the Girl Scout Council, the Eleanor Roosevelt Center of Valkill, and of course, her beloved C.R.O.P. Walk, that brought me to meet her in the first place. For the past 43 years, Mary has participated in the annual Dutchess County C.R.O.P. Walk (Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty), which aims to end hunger around the world. In 2017, Mary was the 6th largest fundraiser for the C.R.O.P. Walk nationwide, fundraising $18,474 for the cause.
This year, Mary and her husband, Kennon, who just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, are being honored by the Dutchess County Interfaith Council. They are the recipients of the inaugural Rabbi Erwin Zimet Humanitarian award in acknowledgment of their many charitable endeavors and the innumerable ways that they have given – and continue to give – back to their community. The highlight of this is their unwavering commitment to the C.R.O.P. walk.
With all the ways that Mary has helped others, she remains equally proud of the way that she and Kennon have raised their two children, David and Laura. She describes them emphatically as “loving, generous and thoughtful adults.” She talks about the many ways that they’ve made her proud: through their advanced education, successful careers, loving marriages, and the parents they’ve become to their grandchildren. David and his wife Eileen blessed them with two grandchildren: Sophie and Gus; and Laura and her husband Dan blessed the family with two more grandchildren: Jacob and Maddie. Her family, above all, remains paramount.
Written by Laura Shulman Cordeira, Manager of Volunteers at Regional Hospice in Danbury, Connecticut. September 2018.