Mary Ann Alvey Smith Wakefield... 7 children...Elvis Presley and her encouragement!
This month's Q. highlight is on my mother-in-law, Mary Ann. She has been an inspiration to me on countless occasions. The matriarch of her family, she was both the mother and father roles, to her 7 children while they were growing up. She raised her children in the south, while juggling her career and attending their activity-filled schedule. I've always wondered how she did it. I am honored to have had this interview opportunity. Although this post, is just the tip of the iceberg on the legacy she has created for her children, I hope you enjoy reading some of the highlights.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
I’m 85 years old. I was born December 30,1933, in Paragould, Arkansas. I had a half brother Paul, a half sister Juanita, two brothers, Leo (who died at 18, from complications of strep throat), and Charles, who was a dentist in Birmingham, all older than me. I'm the only survivor of my immediate family.
Did you go to college?
Yes, Arkansas State College; majored in Fine Arts and minored in Theatre.
You have 7 children, what is the age difference between the oldest and the youngest?
11 years; Debbie, Sharon, Ray, Susan, David (deceased), Judy and Sandy.
Did you work while the children were young?
I worked as a paste up/layout artist for a book publisher in Park Ridge, Illinois. I had a wonderful boss who allowed me to work while the children were in school and take the summer months off. When I returned in the Fall, I always received a raise because he said I was very productive and a hard worker.
What were the ages of the children when you became a single mother?
I lost my husband when my oldest Debbie, was 16, a high school junior, and the youngest, Sandy, was 5.
At what stage of life did you start your career?
After I moved to Jonesboro, Arkansas, with the children, I visited a good friend who headed the Radio/TV Department at Arkansas State University.
He and I went to high school together and after high school, we both worked at the radio station KDRS in Paragould. His budget was already spent for the school year but he suggested I go the the local TV Station. There I met John Hernreich, a young manager of the station. He hired me as traffic manager, responsible for logging all the programs, commercials, etc. for each day. Later with my background in art design, I was promoted to head of the Production Department responsible for all local commercials produced in our studio. He paid me the same as my male counterpart (quite remarkable for 1972).I learned so much from John. Always encouraging and supportive. When assigned a special project, he would review my work and say, “very good Mary Ann, but I know you can do better.” I’d be a little disappointed, but he was always right. He challenged me.
When I went to a national convention for TV Producers/Directors in California, I met Jay Perkins of WMC in Memphis. A year later, Jay called me and offered me a job as Producer/Director for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN. I moved my family again to Memphis. Debbie, Sharon and Ray stayed in Jonesboro while attending Arkansas State University.
What was your greatest challenge with your career?
The biggest challenge was the technical aspect of production. The switch board, computer graphics were just becoming an important part of news reporting.
Film cameras were heavy and carried on one’s shoulder. Film had to be developed no later than two hours before newscast in order to edit. In a lot of instances, film was still being edited while newscast was being aired. When video tape cameras became available, the station was able to film late breaking stories. I learned to film and edit for commercials I produced.
What was your proudest moment of your career?
Being assigned TV technical director of Elvis Presley’s funeral. It was the first live international telecast from WMC -TV, reaching 16 different countries.
Our station was the first station in the mid south to have satellite. When Elvis Presley died, N.Y. reporters from all three major networks flew into Memphis for live feeds from WMC. The news department produced the event, and I had the honor to be technical director for his funeral which aired all over the whole world.
After one hour of coverage, we joined 16 other TV stations all over the world by way of Satellite.This was WMC’s first international telecast.
How did you balance career and family?
I would not have been able to handle the responsibility as production manager if it had not been for my two oldest daughters, Debbie, 16, and Sharon,15. They took care of the younger siblings and provided a safe and secure environment. It was a busy life because my five oldest children were involved in different sports or activities. Luckily, I managed to attend most of their events.
What is your proudest moment of being a Mother?
I’m most proud of my children now that they are grown adults. They are ALL loving well adjusted people, good parents, talented, productive, independent, loyal and supportive of one another.
What is the most important lesson you have learned?
With God’s help, anything is possible!
I would have never dreamed that I, a 37 year old housewife, mother of seven children would became a television director, much less directing an international event. All within five years from moving from Chicago.
I also learned, everything I experienced, every job I ever had, somehow contributed to my career in television production. High school: art, music and creative writing. College: art major with a minor in theatre demanded imagination, composition and staging. My first two jobs after college, paste up artist and copywriter demanded perfection. I was fortunate to have two excellent bosses who were encouraging and demanded the best work I could do.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good mother that loved her children and taught them to be independent.
Empowered women empower women; what advice would you like to share to help encourage another?
Don’t ever underestimate who you are or what you can do. You can learn something from every job you hold, every boss, your co-workers. Open your mind to constructive criticism, it gives you the opportunity to improve your work and advance your career.
One word to sum it all up, what would it be?
Never give up. Pray hard and trust the Lord.
Edit September 10, 2019: "Admitting I made several mistakes on live newscasts when working for WMC but I learned from them. I was advised by my boss and other directors, if you make a mistake on live TV, put it out of your mind immediately and move forward. If you don’t, you’ll make more mistakes!"
- Mary Ann
We took this interview a step further by asking each of Mary Ann’s children to share what they remember most about their Mama while growing up:
Debbie Smith Myers
“She made banners for her church…worked on and directed plays when they retired to Cherokee Village. Built many sets for VBS etc, directed the handbell choir…now picking up her paintbrush once again here in Oxford. She is currently a member of the Oxford Artists Guild.”
Sharon Smith McFarland
“Honestly, there are not enough words to describe mom and everything she’s done. Seems like a condensed version just doesn’t say it all. She made lots of sacrifices for us and never complained.”
“What has resonated in my mind is that Mom has never stopped. She has always been living and doing something, from being involved in community theatre to getting her realtor license after retiring.”
Susan Smith Sandvig
“Mom made it to all of our student activities, whether it be sporting events, concerts, plays…etc. I'm sure it was a sacrifice for her to buy my flute/pay for private lessons.”
“She always made sure that we could participate in any activity we wanted to be involved in (like gymnastics for me). She always made things possible. She never said no to any of us when we asked for help.”
Sandra Smith McDougall-Mitchell
“No matter how little we may have had she would always invite friends of ours to holiday dinners if there was no place for them to go.”
Thank you on behalf of Q. for sharing your journey.