People of Thomas: Mary Mullenax

By Katie Teems, NHT AmeriCorps Member

I walked into the Mountain Top Senior Center at lunch time to see Mary Mullenax eating her lunch. She greeted me with a smile and told me about being a "Michigan kid" born in Wyandotte, Michigan. She had a winding road to Thomas, changing schools twenty-seven times as a kid.

When I asked her how she came to Thomas, her eyes lit up as she started talking about her family. Her mother lived in Brooklyn, New York all her life while her father was a "Benbush boy." Margaret was her mother's name. "Margaret means 'pearl'," Mary said as she explained the synchronicity of her parent's meeting: Mary's mother turned 13 on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, while Mary's father was stationed at Pearl Harbor. The two crossed paths years later at a United Service Organizations (USO) dance.  "And here I am," she said.

Mary is the oldest of five children. Her family moved to Florida where her brother Johnny, named after the astronaut John Glenn, was born. After her father became injured in the line of duty, they moved back to Michigan for a time. "We lost everything," Mary said, but her father's cousin found them a home in the Sugarlands in a former church. "Mom wasn't thrilled about it," she said, "it was in the middle of the boonies." She laughed as she remembered her mom going to a neighbor's house to try home-made elderberry wine. It must not have been strained, she said, because her mom came back with purple teeth. 

While living in the Sugarlands, Mary entertained herself with music. She remembers walking down the hill to the Church of the Brethren to pick strawberries and play on the church's piano. Her love of music goes way back. Her grandfather was playing the piano since he was a child and went on to play at the famous Copacabana nightclub in New York. Her mother, who also wanted to go into show business but was told by her father that "that's no life for a lady," taught herself how to play the piano, ukelele, and organ. She passed this love of music down to her children. Mary had her first solo performance when she was 8 or 9 years old when she sang "Running Bear" and played guitar sitting on her brother's Indian blanket at a Boyscout jamboree. "I just remember that I did it and I got through it," she said.

She studied music in at Fairmont State, and after having a child, she went back to Davis and Elkins for a two-year degree in Business. She got a four-year degree, double majoring in Management and Marketing and Communications.  After becoming the first female president of the WCDE college radio station and working at WELK, she got involved in musical theater and volunteered to clean up the old Sutton Theater, now known as Cottrill's Opera House. Mary was part of the original board that got the building on the Historic Register. She even came up with the group's name: Alpine Heritage Preservation, Incorporated. "Our dream was to have a resident theater company and bring other artists in." The group was able to get a structural assessment done, which is why the Opera House is stabilized today, but there was "always something wrong with the building," she said, and it's "forty years later and not operating." 

In 1999, Mary became unable to work after having severe pain in her arm. "It took months and months to get a diagnosis," and she never recovered the way she thought. Not being able to continue working, Cortland Acres offered to take her in and help her recover. Mary said "the place I am physically is probably the last place I would've chosen, but it's okay. You make the best of what you have." She said "you have to get creative," just like her grandmother, who could "make a meal out of nothing." Mary excels at creativity, whether she's singing or acting. Mary always has a smile on her face and music in her voice as she keeps pushing forward and making the best of everything.