Sensational Seniors – July 2017

When I entered Mary Ann Byrne’s stately historic Jacksonville home on California Street to begin my “Sensational Seniors” interview, I was greeted with, “I have always lived in and loved older homes and, while they take a good deal of tender care and are expensive to maintain, they help define who I am.” Mary Ann’s home is appropriately decorated in period furniture and a wonderful assortment of art representing her numerous travels around the world. She said, “I have a large collection of books and for lack of a better word, stuff. I have enjoyed all of these possessions, but now it is time to start sharing them with other people, so I am in the process of giving things away, and that is a joy in itself.”

To get to 1993 when Mary Ann moved to Jacksonville, one needs to go back in time and, specifically, to February 15, 1933 and her birth in Des Moines, Iowa where she joined two older sisters and an older brother. While, like many, her family struggled financially through these turbulent Depression years, she has many fond memories of growing up, saying, “Our family was fortunate to have a wonderful piano and loads of books and it was an easy walk to the library.”

Mary Ann’s first twelve years of schooling were in Des Moines, graduating from high school in 1951. A strong academic student, Mary Ann was intuitive enough to take a wide selection of available business courses, so she was a proficient typist, mastered shorthand and had basic accounting skills. While intent on going to college, she did not have the money to do so, but emulated her older brother by working for two years to save up money for college. With her strong business skills background, Mary Ann was able to land a job as an editorial assistant for a national retail magazine. When two of her supervisors quickly left their positions, then eighteen-year-old Mary Ann was quickly promoted to an assistant editor position and was sent on assignment to Indiana. She recalled,“ I had never been on a train before, but I quickly learned the ins and outs of train travel, so I could grab my portable typewriter in one hand and my little suitcase in another and be on my way.” Her travels took her to many places, and in one ten-week travel span she made it to the west coast and experienced her first ride in an airplane. She would visit “all the beautiful department stores,” take photos and then retire to her room and type up a story for the magazine.

While the magazine work was exciting and the travel with the magazine was to whet her travel appetite, she knew that, if she did not quit the magazine, she would never make it to college. Fortuitously, she was recruited by two representatives of the William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri who were looking for someone with editorial experience who wanted to attend college and was willing to work 20 hours a week editing a college publication. It was a perfect match and this small liberal arts college was just what she wanted. She was to receive a dual degree in English and American History. In addition, it was here that she met her future husband, Richard Byrne. Interestingly enough, Richard, while a gifted high school student, like Mary Ann, had no money for college but was recruited by the same two men who had recruited Mary Ann, because they wanted Richard for the school debate team. At the time he was approached, he was digging a septic tank at his parent’s home. The two met in a college English class, were engaged at the end of college at which time Richard then enlisted in the Army and was off to Germany to do intelligence work.

Upon graduation from William Jewell, Mary Ann returned to Des Moines and took a position as a placement director for Manpower Corporation, a company that tested and placed people in companies that needed temporary help. When Richard returned from his military stint, the couple married in 1958. The academic-minded Richard moved on to the University of Iowa where he was to receive first a Masters and then a doctorate in Communications. Mary Ann took courses in Middle and Old English and was an associate editor for a University of Wisconsin publication. Richard’s first job was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and here Mary Ann was to fulfill a long-time goal by getting a Masters in Library Science. While she did not take a librarian position in Madison, she and a friend did open a children’s bookstore.

Once the young couple was established in Madison, they started considering adopting a child and in 1965 adopted twin girls, Megan and Heather, not knowing at the time that both girls were severely handicapped. It wasn’t until the girls were five and the Byrnes were at the University of Texas in Austin, that an accurate diagnosis of their condition was confirmed. As one might expect, this was a devastating blow to these determined parents, but Mary Ann believes that the girls were a gift from God to teach them patience and humility.

Mary Ann, Richard and their girls stayed in Texas until 1973 when Richard was offered a full tenured professorship and assistant dean position at the renowned Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California (USC). Later, Dr. Byrne was to become the Dean of this school. Mary Ann remembers, “Richard always had a little business on the side” and was intrigued by the beginning of the technology movement and pioneered that intrigue and research into Springboard, a one-man business where he began traveling across the United States and later Europe speaking to multiple national and international companies about the coming world of technology and what it was going to mean to the business world. Mary Ann became his booking agent, and in a short time Springboard and the Byrne Group became a very successful company.

The Byrne family was devastated in 1988 when Richard was diagnosed with interior melanoma and, three weeks after giving a speech in Atlanta to AT&T executives, he died at the young age of 53. Prior to Richard’s death, Mary Ann and Richard had made the painful decision to place Heather and Megan in a care facility. Mary Ann remembers, “The girls only knew me and I was smothering them. They needed 24-hour care and the opportunity to progress as far as they could. The wonderful facility we placed them in gave them just that.”

Now alone, Mary Ann stayed in the Los Angeles area for a few more years before making the move to Jacksonville in 1993. Prior to 1993, as a travel coordinator for the Pacific Asia Museum, she had accompanied groups of college students who traveled to Ashland to see all the Shakespeare Festival plays. At age 60 she decided that she needed to move from southern California and start a new life in southern Oregon. Initially, she planned on settling in Ashland but a recommended visit to Jacksonville convinced her that this was the place for her. She saw the house on East California Street, secured a showing and purchased three months later.

Once settled in Jacksonville, Mary Ann promised herself that she would not become president of any organization as she had already served many presidencies. This, however, did not mean she was inactive, for she quickly became a member of the Jacksonville Garden Club, the Boosters Club and the Rogue Valley Genealogy Society. While not as president, she has served on numerous boards including the Rogue Valley Chorale, Rogue Art Gallery, the Community Concert Association, the Cultural Commission and the Jacksonville Boosters Foundation. She is an active member of the Jacksonville Presbyterian Church, serving as an Elder and for 12 years as Clerk of Session. She has been the Moderator of the Jacksonville Book Club since 1995 which once had 15 members that met monthly in her small retreat cottage by her main home. She relates, “Sadly we have lost Liz Braislin and others during the ensuing years but have gained Carolyn Kingsnorth and are now a strong eight members.”

Her daughter, Heather, died last year, but Mary Ann continues her routine of calling Megan every Saturday for a half-hour visit and, although Megan can not talk, she enjoys listening to her mother. Megan and Heather loved Jacksonville and visited several times a year.

Mary Ann and Richard were able to experience a good deal of travel while Richard was still alive, mainly to Asia and Europe, and Mary Ann has continued to enjoy traveling across the world to such places as Argentina, Morocco, Tibet, Italy, England, Wales, Africa and to India twice. Even with her volunteer responsibilities, her book club activities and her other commitments, Mary Ann has since childhood been a great fan of baseball. She played competitive softball during her high school years and has the broken nose and gimpy elbow to prove it.

A well-known personality in our village, Mary Ann is noted for her NPR-quality speaking ability, for her intelligent wit, for her generosity of both her resources and her time and, most importantly, for her grace.