Current

How do you tell the story of a person who has lived a thousand lifetimes?

You don’t, and simply allow them to recount the experiences themselves.

That is the case for Mary Current, Visit Jackson’s Welcome Center Specialist, who has announced she will officially retire from the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau on September 30.

Current, known industrywide for her depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for Jackson, Mississippi, began working for Visit Jackson in 1987, a 33-year career that’s only part of her story.

Midwest Beginnings

I was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the youngest of three children in the year 1937. My family lived in the house that my father inherited from his mother. In fact, that is why they moved to Iowa. I am the only member of my family that was not born in Missouri.

I was my daddy’s girl. I adored him and followed him everywhere. When I got old enough, I worked in our garden with him, and after Mama had canned all that we would need for the winter, I would take the rest of the vegetables, strawberries, black raspberries and apples door to door, selling them to neighbors that had no gardens. This money went back into the cost of buying next year’s seeds and supplies. I always loved our older neighbors and spent hours sitting on their porches with them, listening to them talk about the past.

One of my favorite memories of this time is that my dad worked two jobs all the time. One of them was operating the concessions for the local professional baseball team, the Des Moines Bruins. When I was about five years old, he would take me with him to the ballpark on the weekend and pay me a nickel for picking up and re-racking the empty pop bottles after the game. I was in Heaven!

When I was 14 years old, we sold the Iowa house and moved to just outside Denver, Colorado, for my brother’s health. He had severe asthma, and doctors determined it was from the Iowa damp heat and humidity and that he needed a drier climate.

I graduated from Wheatridge High School when I was 18 and married my best friend soon after and started a family. At the time, my husband worked for the US Postal Service. Most of the girls in my graduating class either married right away or became airline stewardesses. Only a few boys in my class went on to college at that time.

Play Ball!

One day in 1963, I came home from work, and my husband said he was going to quit his job and go to a baseball school in Florida to learn how to run a Minor League club. Shock! The even bigger shock was when he did it, and then after less than two weeks at the school, he called home and said it had been a mistake. He already knew more about running a ball club than his instructors did! So he wrote a letter to every professional baseball club in the country seeking employment and quickly found a job with the Detroit Tigers, running their farm team in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. This is where the story really begins.

We packed up everything we owned in a U-Haul trailer pulled by our 1955 Chevrolet and put the three kids in the car and headed out of Denver in a snowstorm, going to a place we had never seen and where we knew no one. I think you call that a “leap of faith.” We spent three years in Rocky Mount.

Desperately homesick for family and friends left behind in Colorado, North Carolina was where I became a real adult. It was where I learned about the Civil Rights Movement and the disparity between the races. I learned that North Carolinians on the east side of the state spoke Elizabethan English, which I could not understand a word of.

Once again, I ran the concessions for the ball club and learned the hard way to figure out what they were asking for. The man that owned the franchise was a former Negro League ballplayer named Buck Leonard. He was later inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. He taught me a lot. It was in that stadium where I saw my first female wrestlers and where I first heard the sounds of James Brown howling “I Feel Good.” 

I was there when the Freedom Riders came and was amazed that the town’s people got together and decided that there would be no violence in their city and served them at the Woolworths Counter just as if they did it every day. 

I was there when President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his daughter Linda Byrd came through on the Freedom Train promoting the signing of the first Civil Right Law. I was there when the Ku Klux Clan threatened to burn a cross on our front lawn because we often fed and entertained the Black ballplayers in our home. I was their surrogate mother because they were as homesick as I was. When they didn’t make the cut for the team, I cried with them and told them that there would be better days ahead. 

I was there when John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. That was when I grew up. I was so ashamed for hiding and crying for the things I’d left behind when Jacqueline Kennedy had to endure the horror of events and could not openly weep. I never cried again from homesickness. 

In 1966 we moved to the Big Leagues – the Saint Louis Cardinals – and I cried from Rocky Mount to Saint Louis because I didn’t want to leave North Carolina.

After three years in St Louis, we moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where my husband became the Travel Manager for the Kansas City Royals, and to run their spring training camp in Ft. Myers, Florida. All of these years were filled with so many blessings and so many good times. Again, I cooked for the team members who filled our house with warmth and laughter, and many friendships that have lasted through the years. It would take a book to begin to scratch the surface of the story of these times.

In 1973, the owner of the Royals franchise got mad over the performance of his players and fired the Manager, Bob Lemon, now in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. All of his coaches and staff, including my husband, were let go, too. So we packed up and moved to Ft. Myers, Florida, for what we thought was a new life outside professional sports. Within two years, we were moving to Norfolk, Virginia to run a professional hockey club, owned by the New York Mets franchise.

Mississippi?

After less than a year, the Mets asked us to go to Jackson, Mississippi, to run their AA farm team, the Jackson Generals. My husband came to Jackson, while the rest of us stayed in Virginia Beach, waiting for the school year to end and for me to finish my job at a fabulous seafood restaurant in a lighthouse right on the beach.

Before leaving, many of my customers and co-workers said to me many times when they learned I was moving to Mississippi, “Oh, you poor thing. Why would you do that?” Shocked, I asked if any had ever been to Mississippi, and the reply was always, “No, but everyone knows about Mississippi.”

I was not looking forward to this move. The first thing I said to my husband upon arrival was “I will not live in a place where people can rightfully say, “Oh you poor thing,” so if this is that kind of place, the kids and I are out of here!” That was 1976.

We rented a house, and it did not help when the second week we lived there, we woke up to a tornado that plastered our windows with pink insulation from destroyed homes and heard that the roof had been blown of Callaway High School where my two kids had just enrolled the week before.

But, now I’m in Jackson!

Immediately, I went to work, getting the concessions stands at Smith-Wills Stadium ready to operate (by me). The parking lot was not paved yet, and every time it rained, we parked out near Lakeland Drive and waded through the mud to get to the offices. Also, at this time, I got up every Saturday morning there was not a game, got in my car with a Mississippi map and drove as far as I could go in one day drive. I stopped at every gas station and small-town store (speaking with) every person working outside and asked, “Will you tell me why you live in Mississippi? Tell me what you love about it.”

Almost always, the answer was, “The people,” or a myriad of things they loved, from farms to the food and sometimes the music. Occasionally, I got a negative answer like, “Because I have no way to get out of here,” but the good far overrode the bad.

For a long time, I thought all roads lead to Canton, Mississippi. No matter what direction I started out going, following the road until you had to turn right or left, I seemed to always wind up in Canton. So, I went home and decided I would stay for a little while, and maybe it would grow on me.

In the off-season, I worked in a Chinese restaurant. I loved it and (the owners), and that friendship continues today. I worked in hotels (the old Sheraton on I-55, and later at LeFleur’s Restaurant, where I worked with Brenda Lewis for years (now the chef at Hilton Jackson), and first hired Jeff Good and Al Roberts and those friendships are precious to me even now.

Later, I worked at the Passport Inn, where I worked for the sweetest man that ever lived, Bill Terry. I loved being with the people. And every day, I grew a little more.

The call

I was working at the Passport Inn in 1987 when the phone call came from Vickie Miller, the first Executive Director of the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau. I couldn’t believe it when she said, “Mary, we have a job opening. Would you like to come to work with us?”

My reply was, “Are you kidding? Would you pay me to tell people about Jackson and get them to come here?”

They were going to hire a salesperson, but a current employee would have the first choice as to if she wanted that job or to keep her present position as the Services Manager. When she made a choice, the other post could be mine. I was elated. It turned out that the employee chose the sales position, so I became Services Manager (that employee was Wanda Wilson, who retired as CEO in 2018). I did not fill out an application or ask what I would be making, or what the benefits were; I just agreed to come to work. I was being paid to promote Jackson. Only a few weeks after I started at JCVB, Vicky was killed in a plane crash in Peru and life at JCVB began to change.

I became the Tourism Manager when the person that had that position moved to the Mississippi Tourism office. I was just told that I had to do the job. The second week on the job, I went to Montreal, Canada and represented Jackson at the Nation Tour Association Annual Marketplace, and the rest is history.

Later, when Family Reunions became a market segment, again, they just handed it to me. I had to scramble to learn how to work that market, but it became the most-loved job of all of my time at the bureau. I loved every group I ever worked with and dreamt of unique things for them to do and things to see that would bring their families closer together.

My last position with Visit Jackson has been Welcome Center Specialist, a job that was short-lived due to the COVID-19  pandemic and the closing of the Welcome Center until further notice.

Takeaways

Things I learned in Jackson:

  • A sense of place – thanks to the writings of Eudora Welty
  • How good it feels when you finally believe that you belong here.
  • The first time Minnie Watson hugged me and told me she appreciated me (she is my idol)
  • The time I took Clotie Graves to a Journey’s Home conference in Helena, Arkansas and the director told her never again to say, “I’m just a tour guide.” I watched her bloom when she understood that she is the keeper and sharer of African-American history and what she does is vital.
  • The day I met Reena Evers and Minnijean Brown Trickey at the Medgar Evers House on the same day.
  • My first conversation with Myrlie Evers
  • My forever friendship with Sharon Robinson that started at Mississippi Tourism and continues into retirement

Reflections on my time at Visit Jackson

The years have brought many changes in our industry: many good, some not so good. But, overall, it has been a beautiful ride. I would not take the world for the many deep and lasting friendships I have made throughout the industry, local and national and even international. I have learned so much. I have enjoyed so many benefits and privileges. I’ve been to so many wonderful places and met so many interesting people. I learned to work with and respect all people, and to hopefully always treat them fairly and equally, all because of my affiliation with Visit Jackson.

If I had it to do over, I’d still answer that phone call with, ‘Are you kidding? You are really going to pay me to tell people how great Jackson is?’”

My advice?

I lived during the time of American greatness and the triumphs of the human spirit. I want folks to know that honesty counts, people and relationships count, and that no matter how crazy it gets, life doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.