My first big story was to be an interview with a woman who was the newly appointed director of a local domestic violence agency. Recently, I have come to realize how that interview changed my life and now I see the ripple effects on the development of my two daughters.
Mary Lee Lord was the woman I interviewed 14 years ago. It was a cold, snowy day when I showed up at the ramshackle office of the Womens Resource Center, located at that time at 1017 Hannah Street in Traverse City. I recall the staff members were practically sitting on top of one another in the cramped office space. Counselors shared offices and when a client came in for confidential counseling, a strange version of musical chairs took place with staffers moving from this desk to that one in order to accommodate the clients privacy. Most appalling of all, Mary Lee didnt even have an office. Her desk, piled high with files, books and binders, was out in the hall. Gracious as ever, Mary Lee whisked me into a small conference room where the interview was to take place.
For the next 30 minutes I unsuccessfully attempted to get this woman to talk about herself. I wanted her to tell me about her background, training, major accomplishments, awards bestowed upon her. Nada. She was amazingly adept at answering all my questions in such a way that it was always about the agency - what it needed, what it was planning to do and how the community or better yet, how I could assist.
Two things happened when I left the WRC office that day. First, I had to call Bob and tell him the interview would not be about the new director, but about the agency as a whole and what it desperately needed from the community. And second, somehow Mary Lee had gotten me to volunteer to write the agencys quarterly newsletter. In dismay I drove home wondering what I had just committed to.
I didnt realize it at the time, but now I know, this was pure Mary Lee Lord. Inch by inch, person by person, dollar by dollar, she built an agency that has gone from an operating budget of $300,000 to over $2 million. In 14 years her full-time staff expanded from 12 to 28.
Agency volunteers grew from 60 to an army of over 150. WRCs small 11-person shelter became a 22-person Victorian mansion. Transitional homes, one in Traverse City and one in Benzie County, opened their doors to women and children in need of long-term lodging.
Later this year a third, 24-bed transitional home will open in Traverse City to women with children who not only have domestic violence issues, but also suffer from substance abuse.
Satellite offices are now in operation in Benzie, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties. The Thrift Shop will relocate in a few weeks to a building the WRC has purchased.
It was also Mary Lees vision to get more men involved in the agency. She recruited them to serve on the board of directors. She befriended male law enforcement officials. She reached out to men who were business leaders in the community. She joined nearly every service organization in town, sometimes having breakfast, lunch and dinner at various club meetings.
I remember she once said that until men cared about domestic violence, not much would change. (Fellas, you never stood a chance! Mary Lees style was smooth, genuine and friendly, but doggedly determined. She had a light touch with an iron grip. I am sure as you have come to realize, it was difficult, if not downright impossible, to say no to this fine lady.)
Sadly, Mary Lee Lord died on February 28, suddenly but peacefully, of heart failure. She was just 68 years old. Trust me when I say we are all the worse for her departure.
I learned so much from this woman. I learned how to be a leader. I learned about being a woman. I learned about being a good mother. Most importantly, I learned about the responsibility each of us has to help one another and the community at large. For eight years I was a devoted volunteer for the WRC. I continued with the newsletter until, in 2000, a staff person was hired to handle the ever-growing public relations needs of the agency. I was there at the very first meeting when the annual Extravaganza fundraiser was born.
Over the years I have written numerous articles about the WRC for any publication that would print it. As time went by, so my life grew and filled in with two daughters. My focus shifted to volunteering at their school by chairing fundraising events and volunteering wherever necessary. Now I am proud to serve as a board member for Child and Family Services, another critical agency in our community. All of this, I assure you, grew from the kernel of wisdom Mary Lee implanted in me that fateful day in 1992. Just do it was Mary Lees motto long before Nike claimed it.
At Mary Lees memorial service many things came to light about her. The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa were there to drum and chant a song solemnly reserved for the occasion of honoring a fallen warrior. Mary Lee was a mighty warrior indeed. WRC clients were there to bravely stand up among the crowd and tell amazing stories of care and compassion. Friends and neighbors from her earlier days in Lansing were there, too. Seems the young Mary Lee was just as remarkable. Community leaders, top brass from all the law enforcement agencies, lawyers, judges and even her hairdresser were there to show their warm regards for this special individual who helped hundreds if not thousands of people bear the burden of life.
Usually it can be said you dont know what youve got until its gone. In Mary Lees case, we knew what we had and thats what makes it all the more difficult to let her go.