A Day Made for Mary Cooksey

By LORETTA FULTON

The Grace Museum decked out in elegance, a marquee style CONGRATS sign topped with black and silver balloons, a professional photographer snapping party pics–it all added up to gala occasion.

“Mary Cooksey Day in Abilene, Texas” was certainly that. A proclamation from the mayor’s office–read by the mayor himself–made it official. Jan 27, 2022, was designated as Cooksey’s special day, but to all who turned out to honor her, every day is Mary Cooksey Day.

That’s especially true to people who have worked alongside her at the United Way of Abilene since 2000 and to the people she has served, first as campaign director in charge of annual fundraising efforts and, since 2004, director of the 2-1-1 Call for Help program. 

Mary Cooksey on her special day Photo by Loretta Fulton

The main room of the The Grace Museum was packed with well-wishers, including Mayor Anthony Williams, United Way President and CEO Cathy Ashby, other dignitaries, and hundreds of Abilenians who have served with or who have been served by Cooksey. The event, Cooksey said, was beyond humbling.

“I am so blessed by each and every one of you,” she said.

Just to give a little taste of what Cooksey has overseen since 2004 as 2-1-1 director, Ashby read a list of disasters that have occurred every year–including hurricanes, train derailments, tornadoes, and more. Abilene is one of three cities in Texas designated as a statewide call center in case of a disaster–either natural or man-made.

“The one person who doesn’t need a list of all those is Mary Cooksey,” Ashby said. 

Cooksey was presented a mayoral proclamation from Williams and a flag that has flown over the state Capitol from a representative of state Rep. Stan Lambert. But the best gift came from individuals who gave brief tributes to Cooksey and placed a flower in a vase to form a beautiful bouquet. One, from Lynn Barnett, executive director of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, was in the form of a poem, “Ode to Mary, ” that asked the question, “How can the downtown carry on without you?”

Lauren Ramelot and Mary Cooksey share a hug at Cooksey’s retirment bash. Photo by Loretta Fulton

Cooksey’s presence certainly will be missed in downtown Abilene, where she has spent much of her life since 1996, when she was named the first executive director of the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. Cooksey led the way in taking the project from a feasibility study through a capital campaign for a permanent home. She joined the United Way staff in 2000. 

A fun part of the celebration came when “Bucket List” entries were read. The entries weren’t written by Cooksey but by people who came to wish her well. Some of the more unique entries included:

“Taste everything–don’t worry about the calories”

“Skydiving”

“Wind surfing”

“Fly to Hawaii”

“Fly to  Canada”

“Fly to Switzerland”

“Dye your hair red”

A glance through Cooksey’s professional resume reveals a life of service that spans her career, and community and church involvement. A few of those entries include service to Holy Family Catholic Church and the Diocese of San Angelo, West Texas Homeless Network, Abilene Arts Council, Abilene Philharmonic Guild, Citizens Police Academy, and the Community Foundation Future Fund. She also is a member of numerous professional organizations and was honored by the Texas Alliance of Information & Referral Systems in 2008 with the Clare Rothmeyer Distinguished Service Award. 

The best summary of Cooksey’s contributions to the city came from Cathy Ashby, who has worked alongside Cooksey as president and CEO of the United Way since 2013. 

“Abilene is a much better place because of Mary,” Ashby said. 

Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene

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