Mary Ann Cox-You Gotta Love People

Mary Ann Cox and Joan Velsmid
Photos by Marie Thomas
Makeup by Alex Lucas

Everything you want to know about Mary Ann Cox can be summed up in the four words she lives by:

“Practice what you preach.”

She’s always wanted to help people, so when she arrived here 36-years ago, she set about doing just that. And she hasn’t stopped.

Mary Ann was born and raised in Cranford, N.J., about 20 miles from New York City. Cranford had about 26,000 residents at that time. With an enviable downtown, 22 city and county parks, and trails along a river parkway, it’s not a stretch to say her hometown was comparable to Peachtree City.

Mary Ann, at about age 6

The daughter of Cuban immigrants, her father, and his brothers fought in World War II. He and one of his brothers married sisters back in Cuba after the war, and the couples moved to the United States in the ’40s.

For most of her childhood, the two families, which included Mary Ann, her parents, and younger sister, the uncle, aunt, and a cousin, shared a home in Cranford. Although there were no other Cubans in the town and few if any other families who spoke Spanish, they integrated into the community well.

Her father, whom she describes as a self-made man, inspired Mary Ann’s work ethic. He took the train into New York to work every day for years. He started his own business in import/exports, where his fluent Spanish proved to be quite valuable. He also enjoyed working with his hands, and his entrepreneurial endeavors included being a home builder.

Her mother passed down her faith.

Mary Ann’s last trip to Cuba was in 1959 when she was 11 years old. (A return trip is at the top of her bucket list.) A 15-year-old cousin came home with her family. One by one, other cousins followed, all living with Mary Ann’s family until their parents were able to join them. Eventually, most of her parent’s families fled Castro’s “stuff,” as she puts it, and made their way to America.

Mary Ann’s college graduation photo in 1970

Her compassion and understanding of immigrants, which is as alive as ever today, was born in intimate contact with these journeys.

Mary Ann and her sister attended Catholic school. In 1970, she graduated from Caldwell College for Women, now Caldwell University, a Catholic liberal arts school about 20 miles from Cranford. Her college major was Spanish, “because it was easy,” she said.

Although she and her husband, Richard, both grew up in Cranford, they never met until college friends introduced them in 1966. Richard remembers the exact date and details.

“I met Mary Ann the weekend of October 28, 1966, on a blind date to the drive-in movies,” Richard recalls. “A friend of mine was dating one of her girlfriends who was attending a college in Pennsylvania. She was coming home for the weekend and had plans to see Mary Ann. So, Tom called me, and the four of us went to the drive-in to see ‘The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming!’”

A June wedding followed Mary Ann’s college graduation.

They made their home in the town where they grew up, spending the next decade working and raising a family. Mary Ann taught Spanish in public school for three years until their oldest daughter, Jennifer, was born. Kimberly came along three years later. When the girls were enrolled in St. Michael’s, the same school she had attended, Mary Ann began working there as the first art teacher.

She’s often the first to do something.

Mary Ann was confirmed into the Catholic Church at St. Michael’s in the early 60s.

When the young family attended one of her cousin’s wedding at Stone Mountain, the idea of moving to Georgia took root.

“We’ve got to move down here,” she told her husband.

The short story is that Richard was recruited by Yokogawa and the family moved to Peachtree City in 1982, right before Christmas. Their daughters were about five and nine years old at the time.

The slightly longer version is that Mary Ann and a headhunter worked diligently together over six months to convince him to make the change. A better job, a better home – a better life was waiting.

“When we moved here, the end of the construction in Peachtree City was Mcintosh Trail,” Mary Ann recalls.  There was “one traffic light, maybe” here and it took less than 20 minutes to drive from Newnan to Fayetteville.

“We picked out a lot. We thought we were going to be in the woods for a while. There was nothing south of that. When we came back to move in, there was mud and red clay everywhere because the place had just blown up.”

“Never stop learning. Self-improvement is very important. Be persistent – tis better to wear out  than rust out. Respect and compassion are the bedrock of relationships. Help others whenever you can. Pray!”  Mary Ann Cox

A daily communicant, Mary Ann immediately made her way to Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

“I remember knocking on the door on a Saturday, and they came out, and I asked, “where’s the mass,’ because I assumed they had Mass every day because that’s what you do up north.” She discovered, though, that in those early days Mass was a Sunday only observance in Peachtree City.  

“It was like missionary territory at that time,” she says.

There she met Linda Hughey and Father Jim Sextone. Those two and an organist were the only people on staff at that time.

The Cox Family in 1989: Katie, Mary Ann, Jennifer, Rich and Kimberly.

The Cox Family in 1989: Katie, Mary Ann, Jennifer, Rich and Kimberly.

They needed help with religious education, so Mary Ann volunteered. The church and the rectory were all that was there, so space was an issue. Therefore, religious education classes were held at McIntosh High School. Vacation Bible School was held at the Lutheran church.

“On Sundays, we’d fill our cars with books and stuff and drive it over to McIntosh and open the doors and take care of business and then close up and come back.”

In 1985, she officially joined the parish staff. Over the years she formally served as elementary coordinator, youth ministry coordinator, and director of religious education. Unofficially, she worked wherever she could help.

“You see a need, and you work to fill it,” she says.

For the next three decades, as Holy Trinity grew from a few dozen to today’s 2,600 families, she continued to fill the gaps of whatever was missing at the parish.

A couple of years after moving to Peachtree City, Mary Ann and Richard were blessed with a third daughter, Katie. She realized when Katie was three that the parish needed a preschool, so she founded it.

She began Holy Trinity’s Giving Tree as an elementary school project. Today the program provides Christmas gifts to hundreds of families.

She founded the parish’s first programs for teenagers: Life Teen.

In 1996, she worked with the Lutherans to found Stephen’s Ministry. Twenty-two years later, trained parishioners continue to provide confidential, one-to-one Christian care to individuals who are experiencing difficult times.  

When she went on a missions trip with Heritage Christian Church, “I told them right off the bat that I was going to spy,” she says. Sure enough, when she returned, she began coordinating mission trips to Central America for teens at Holy Trinity.

She was also the bedrock of Holy Trinity’s outreach to the Hispanic community, logging many miles transporting people to and from appointments and providing assistance in countless other ways.

Mary Ann’s involvement in the community extends beyond the church walls. She got involved with Girl Scouts as soon as she moved here too. Subsequently, the program grew so much, Peachtree City had two units, one for the north and south sides of town.

Mary Ann became involved with Girl Scouts shortly after moving to Peachtree City. The program grew so much, she and Michele Varisco lead two service units. Here, Girl Scouts participate in the Peachtree City 4th of July parade.

“Mary Ann convinced me to be the Service Unit Director for the south PTC area and she the north,” long-time friend Michele Varisco recalls. “We worked together closely planning the Girl Scout Summer Day Camp which was held at the Baptist Church, Date with Dad, a dance for the Girl Scouts and their fathers, International Festival where each scout troop would represent a different country and have crafts/food from that country. We planned countless activities for the scouting program.”

The first “Date with Dad” was held at Peachtree City Elementary. Richard served as DJ.

“Over the years, ‘Date with Dad’ grew to be arguably the biggest social event of the year with more than 700 girls and dads together for the evening,” Richard recalls. “In the days leading up to that dance, you could not find a dress pattern for a poodle skirt or flowers for a corsage anywhere in Fayette County! Ironically, Mary Ann missed the first ‘Date with Dad’ at Peachtree Elementary. She was in Southern Regional Hospital giving life to our youngest daughter, Katie.”

“I like to start things,” Mary Ann admits.

Richard and Katie Cox at a Peachtree City Daddy-Daughter Dance

Many of the projects and initiatives Mary Ann tackled were to solve a problem. Clothes Less Traveled is the result of an overflowing closet of donations people were continually bringing to Holy Trinity.  She and Joan Velsmid partnered to found a nonprofit thrift store that has since gone on to donate more than $6.5 million to other local charitable organizations.

In a doctor’s office in 2003, she read an article about a free clinic in Clayton County in 2003.

“People were always coming to me because they have a toothache, a belly ache, etc.,” she said. “I was taking them to my own doctors, but I couldn’t sustain that.”

A couple of years later, she and Dr. Betsy Horton founded Fayette Care Clinic. Mary Ann’s daughter, Jennifer Pate, was involved and once again Joan came alongside to help find a location.

“I get an idea, and I have to mull it around and figure out how to do something,” Mary Ann explains.

Often she takes on projects the church won’t tackle. St. Vincent de Paul wasn’t interested in operating a thrift store so Clothes Less Traveled happened. The diocese wasn’t willing to take on a healthcare ministry. Consequently, we have the Fayette Care Clinic.

Members of the Holy Trinity staff joined in celebrating Mary Ann’s 70th birthday.

Members of the Holy Trinity staff joined in celebrating Mary Ann’s 70th birthday.

“I often think of her as a mini version of Mother Teresa,” Michele says. “She has a heart of gold and will try to help anyone if she possibly can… She is a great friend to many because she truly cares about each of us and is willing to give of herself without hesitation.”

Mary Ann’s daughter, Katie Cox, agrees.

“If everyone she has helped along the way pays a little of that kindness forward, the impact would go way beyond just the community,” Katie says.

“I think I have more friends in trailer parks than anywhere else,” Mary Ann says.

Easter Sunday fell on April 1 in 2018. It was also Mary Ann’s 70th birthday. She’d officially spent half of her life at Holy Trinity. It felt like the right time to retire.

“I felt the stars all came together,” she said. It was time. Time to celebrate. Time for family, which includes six grandchildren. Time for home projects and taking care of her beloved elderly chihuahuas.

And more time for causes she continues to hold dear. Now she’s able to spend more time at Fayette Care Clinic, for instance. She is also especially concerned with the plights of the undocumented and the mentally ill. Safe housing, jobs, healthcare — these are difficult challenges for both of these groups.

Mary Ann is mulling it over.

Why?

“It’s something in me,” she says.

As a young person, she considered becoming a nun. Her parents opposed the idea, and Mary Ann went in a different direction.

70th Birthday and Retirement Party with Richard

“I have found that I have done a lot more work for the betterment of people than I would have if I had been confined to that life,” she says.

On a retreat years ago, she heard a message that stuck:

“Love is giving of yourself for the good of another.”

“Jesus would never have told us to love somebody if it was a warm and fuzzy feeling,” she says. “Giving of yourself is an act of the will. That is what I’ve lived by.”

Like and love are not the same thing, she explains. Not at all.

All these years, she’s given her phone number “to just about anybody.”

“I see a number comes up on my cell phone and think, ‘oh my God, I don’t want to talk to them,’ but I do. And I have been blessed because of that, I’m sure.”

 

Read Joan Velsmid-You Gotta love your Family here.

Joyce Beverly

I was local when local wasn't cool. After more than three decades as a community journalist, I've found my dream job as publisher of Fayette Woman.

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