What We Will Treasure

By on 5 October, 2018 in Carole King, Historic Midtown with 1 Comment

With the passing of Mary Ann Neeley, our community has lost a great historian and a great friend. The city’s outpouring of thoughts, sympathies and memorials has been very impressive and overwhelming evidence of how many people she touched with her gifts. Each person, all 300+, who came to the Neeley family reception at Old Alabama Town had their own story about their relationship with Mary Ann and how she had influenced them. So I want to take this opportunity to tell my story and what Mary Ann meant to me.

Everybody has that one person in their life who listens to them, mentors them, befriends them, always supports them…just plain gets them. And to me that was Mary Ann. It was a chilly autumn morning in 1981, and I was home from graduate school for a long weekend. I was taking the opportunity to begin the research for a local history class on an old house that was part of the St. Mary’s of Loretto School, operated by the Sisters of Loretto, where I attended first and second grade in the early 1960s. The huge house had always mesmerized me and I was on a quest to see how it ended up as a convent and a school for so many years. Folks had told me to go downtown to this Landmarks office and maybe somebody knew something about the house. I am ashamed to say I had never been to or heard of North Hull Street Historic District and here I was in graduate school for historic preservation. I found a plain white building marked Visitor Information Center on North Hull Street and decided to inquire there. Little did I know that day that I would spend the next several decades in that building, Lucas Tavern.

When I entered the building I was immediately greeted by an energetic person who asked if I was interested in a tour. I blurted out that I was looking for an internship and information for my research project. I had never thought about an internship so where that request came from I will never know. The person greeting me introduced herself, Mary Ann, and was ecstatic that I was looking for such an opportunity because they surely needed someone. We spent several hours together in the friendly back Tavern Room with me sharing my current skills and what I was looking for and she outlining what Landmarks needed in their current projects. Mary Ann shared stacks of file folders with her research about the Pearly Gerald House which was the historic name of the structure that housed the Loretto School that I was researching for my class project. She assured me that my services would be most welcome when I returned to Montgomery in a few weeks. I was pretty overwhelmed by scoring not only tons of information for my project but I had landed a job in the process.

So on January fifth, 1982, I showed up to begin my journey with Mary Ann. Although I appreciate history, I would never consider myself a historian. In graduate school I had been introduced to the concepts of historic preservation, social history, local history, material culture, and museum studies, but nothing had prepared me for everything that Mary Ann would teach me over the next several decades. Those who remember those early years in Lucas Tavern remember our unusual shared lunches of canned sardines, chopped green peppers and saltine crackers followed by handfuls of peanut M&Ms and sometimes late afternoon gatherings involving libations you would usually find at a Tavern. She was greeted daily at her early morning arrival by a local street person we called Shorty. He was, obviously, short in height, bald and dressed very colorfully. She always enthusiastically greeted him with, “Good morning, Shorty!” and his response was usually, “You ain’t s—, ball bat!” We never knew what it meant but we knew Shorty was harmless and his greeting was a term of endearment to her.

Under the leadership of Jimmy Loeb and Mary Ann, Old Alabama Town expanded to six blocks and 50 historic structures with so many folks contributing to the creation of what is now known as Old Alabama Town. Mary Ann especially loved early Montgomery history and the founding of the city. I was interested in more twentieth century history and development of the neighborhoods. She knew lots about Montgomery’s founding fathers, their work and where they lived, and I was more interested in the architecture and everyday life. Mary Ann liked historic special events and happenings, while I liked gardens and historic plantings. When we researched the buildings for Old Alabama Town, Mary Ann was interested in the people and I was interested in how the interiors would have originally looked to recreate in our restorations.

Since her passing so many people have shared what Mary Ann meant to them and what she taught them. But Mary Ann had many shortcomings also and these are just a few those things that those around Mary Ann will dearly remember.

  • She was not an efficient timekeeper. She never said “NO, I don’t have time.”
  • She was not a great cook but she loved to open a can of peas or beets.
  • She was not a great housekeeper. Her desk was stacked with file folders from the various Landmarks restoration projects and her current research. If you asked her a question and she, oddly enough, didn’t know the answer, she would surely know which of those file folders that the answer would be in.
  • She was not good with directions but that just meant you would never be lost and the trip would intentionally lead to an interesting adventure.
  • She was not athletic but she walked miles doing street survey work in historic districts, downtown and Old Oakwood Cemetery. Her walking tours were marathons which sometimes would only end when the sun went down.
  • She was not an efficient computer operator. It took her years to grasp the concept of “saving” a document on the computer. She would work hours on a research article and then just turn the computer switch off when she finished, losing the document and all her work. She was so accustomed to turning off a typewriter and the paper being where it was when she returned to it.

During our years together we met so many wonderful, dedicated, committed, and interesting folks through the many projects we were involved in. There were so many tangible and factual things she taught but so many other intangibles we learned from her as well—how to be patient, how not to judge, and how to share, just to name a few.

As we now look at ways to memorialize Mary Ann and her life, I think the best way to remember her is to look at all she taught us and to make sure we pass on her passion and enthusiasm for Montgomery’s rich historical and architectural past.

Carole King (not the singer, just the hummer) enjoys midtown living from South Capitol Parkway in Capitol Heights where she has lived for 25+years. Carole has been the historic properties curator for the Landmarks Foundation that manages Old Alabama Town for 28 years and is passionate about neighborhoods, their architectural character, their people, and their preservation!

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  1. Beautifully written, Carole. And I know her passing was about as hard on you as for anyone who was blood kin. Remember your words about passing it on and start dictating!

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