State AARP president Mary Dillard advocates for senior citizens

5 Jun
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, High Profile, June 5, 2011

BY RHONDA OWEN, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

 

Mary Dillard

Friends and colleagues — few describe themselves as merely one or the other — say the qualities that have made Arkansas AARP President Mary Dillard a well-liked and sought-after political and nonprofit consultant for more than 30 years also make her a person whose friendships are lasting and held close to the heart.

   “I was drawn to her by her wit and her perceptiveness about people,” says Judith Faust, who met Dillard in 1979 when the two co-managed Gloria Cabe’s first successful campaign for state representative. 

   “She’s my friend who cries when she laughs and laughs when she cries,” Faust says. “When she laughs, it’s with her whole self.”

    Nan Selz, director of the Arkansas Museum of Discovery, met Dillard in the 1970s while Dillard was in charge of a nonprofit trade association.

   “Mary’s a wonderful friend. She’s always there for you, always supportive, but at the same time she’s realistic,” Selz says.

    Ron Copeland, a former neighbor who shared office space with Dillard during the 1990s while both ran separate consulting businesses, says Dillard is “very bright, very articulate, understands people and community, and is able to apply all of that in whatever she’s involved in.”

    When asked about herself, Dillard answers with an air of one who finds it more satisfying to discuss issues and ideas. But she talks easily and joyfully of the people she cherishes. That, too, endears her to others.

    “She does not have a big ego and isn’t focused on promoting herself,” says Walter Nunn, who met Dillard when he was director of the Arkansas Institute of Politics and Government in the early 1970s.

    Dillard, whose birthday in January placed her in the first wave of baby boomers to reach age 65, doesn’t lack for accomplishments to talk about.

    Her experience as a political consultant includes running winning campaigns for Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown, former Secretary of State Sharon Priest, former Saline County Sheriff Judy Pridgen (one of Dillard’s two sisters), and others through her business, Dillard & Associates Inc.

    Other accomplishments include successful campaigns for a constitutional amendment to allow millage increases for public library funding, to change Little Rock’s form of city government and to raise money for the Pulaski County jail.

    She’s also known for volunteering, having served as president of the boards of Arkansas Women’s Action Fund, Arkansas Hunger Coalition, Women of Arkansas in Political Action, as well as more than a dozen other nonprofit organizations.

    DOWN ON THE FARM

    For most of her career, Dillard’s work was based in central Arkansas. Since 2004, she has been living and working from her home — or “farmette,” as she calls it — at Farmington in Northwest Arkansas. She has also changed the name of her business to Mary Dillard Consulting.

    Dillard moved to Farmington from Little Rock after her husband, Tom Dillard, was hired as director of the University Libraries’ special collections department at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

    The couple, who were introduced by Nunn, celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary in January. Their wedding, Faust says, was the “quintessential political wedding.”

    “They were married in the state Capitol in the governor’s conference room by Steele Hayes, the Supreme Court justice,” she says.

    In Little Rock, the couple were well known — Mary for her work and volunteer activities, and Tom as a gifted gardener and historian. Their home garden was on the Little Rock Garden Club tour more than once. They were also among the first people in the city to raise chickens in their backyard, which they began on the advice of friend P. Allen Smith, lifestyle expert and gardener.

    At Farmington, they’ve continued to raise a variety of chickens for fun and for their eggs. Among the breeds in their flock are “Americana, which lays pretty green eggs. We’ve also got Barred Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Red, Brown Leghorn and Special Sussex,” she says.

    And, naturally, they have a large garden on their 28-acre farm. She says her husband likes to plan and plant the garden, while her job is to harvest the vegetables and fruits. “We have a great blackberry patch so I make blackberry jam.”

    Since Dillard has lived on the farm, Faust has visited many times. Sometimes she and other friends spend the weekend.

    ‘‘Mary is a world-class cook and a marvelous, effortless hostess,” Faust says. “It’s always such a treat to go to Tom and Mary’s house because we know there will be terrific conversation, gardens to walk through and terrific food.”

    THE ACTIVE LIFE

   Dillard’s life isn’t entirely bucolic. She is involved in volunteer activities and civic organizations such as the Rotary Club, plus she works part time.

   Five years ago, she became a consultant for the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

   “I’m not as busy as I once was, but I work about 20 hours a week to develop training materials and conduct training sessions for sexual assault victim advocates and the police.” 

   She’s passionate about making sure law enforcement officials, medical professionals and others who deal with directly with survivors are well trained. Education even includes the language used when talking to or about survivors.

    “Often the victim is referred to as the ‘accuser’ so there’s a shift to make her seem like the aggressor,” Dillard says. “That shifts attention to the women who are victims and away from the men who are being violent.”

    Dillard is equally passionate about her volunteer work with the AARP and ensuring that senior citizens continue to have choices regarding health care and other aspects of their lives. She joined the AARP’s executive council not long after moving to Farmington and was elected the organization’s president in 2007.

    Dillard provides leadership for more than 500 volunteers in Arkansas, says Maria Reynolds-Diaz, Arkansas AARP director.

    “She is a wonderful leader, facilitator, strategist, planner and organizer,” Reynolds-Diaz says. “She has just brought a wealth of information to the state office because of her skills and experience.”

    She says Dillard’s knowledge about government systems and politics has made her an ideal person to represent the AARP when talking with Arkansas’ congressmen and senators about issues such as preserving Social Security and closing the Medicare Part D coverage gap, known as the doughnut hole.

    Dillard says she believes that Social Security will survive efforts to change or dismantle it, while Medicare may not.

    “Medicare is going to be something different. It’s an expensive program, but it has made a huge amount of difference in terms of health care and the well-being of Americans.”

    Results of a recent AARP survey showed that older Americans are optimistic about the future, an attitude that Dillard says she shares. She notes that she and fellow baby boomers are healthier and more youthful than their parents or grandparents were at the same age.

    “Both my grandmothers were dead before they were 60. My mother died at 72 and that’s only seven years older than I am now. I hope I’ve got more than seven years left. But I think I have a younger outlook than my mother did at 65.”

    ALWAYS A LEADER

    Her mother, Hazel Frost, taught math at Benton High School, which Dillard and her siblings attended. “We could never get away with anything,” she says.

    Dillard has two younger sisters, Pridgen and Carol Perry, and an older brother, Larry. They grew up in Benton (Pridgen and Perry still live there), where her father, C.L. Frost — “Everybody called him Jack” — owned a used-furniture store called Frost’s Trading Post.

    “I was kind of a nerd,” Dillard says. “I was in the band until 10th grade. I was on the student council and I was in Beta Club.”

    Since both parents worked, the Frost children were responsible for household chores. “Mary was the chief cook and bottle washer,” Pridgen says. “She kind of gave us all orders, therefore we all learned how to cook by the time we were 12 years old.

    “Our parents raised us to be independent and do what we thought was right. Mary has carried that on through her life.”

    Pridgen says she benefited from her sister’s political acumen when she ran for Saline County sheriff in 1992.

    “Mary did all of my campaigns for me. She’s always been very smart and a real leader,” says Pridgen, who won that election. She served two terms as sheriff and in 2002 won a special election for a seat in the state Senate.

    THE SCIENCE OF POLITICS

    Dillard no longer manages political campaigns, but during her political heyday, she sometimes ran eight or nine campaigns simultaneously.

    “I’d be working seven days a week with lots of deadlines and lots of pressure,” she says. “There’s so much pressure on the candidate so there’s a lot of hand-holding and reassuring, and keeping them from going off half-cocked and doing something stupid.”

    Dillard says she enjoyed the work despite the pressure, and “for a while it was really fun.”

    She hadn’t planned on a career as a political consultant, but she found her training as a scientist abetted her new career. She has a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and a master’s degree in environmental biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

    During the summer of 1972, after finishing graduate school, she participated in a scientific project in the northern part of Yugoslavia that is now Slovenia. Afterward, she returned to Arkansas.

    Once she was back in her home state, Dillard says, she wasn’t able to find a job as a scientist, so she began working as the administrator for the Human Service Providers Organization, which later became NonProfit Resources. “Then the scientific method that I’d been trained in became useful in planning social programs.”

    While working for the nonprofit trade association, Dillard attended a class at the Arkansas Institute of Politics and Government. There, she met Walter Nunn, then director of the institute, one of four that the Ford Foundation established to teach people how to run political campaigns.

    “Mary showed a real talent for campaign organizing,” Nunn says. “You have to be organized with a capital ‘O’ because a campaign, by virtue of being temporary, is really difficult to run efficiently.

    “You have to have a strong personality to deal with the candidate, then be able to lay out all the things you need to do. Mary was good about having the vision about what should happen at what stages in a campaign,” he says. “She knew her job was to keep the candidate on track, organize all the resources, keep the troops happy and coordinate all the activities.”

    Dillard says she was “very picky” about the candidates she assisted. “I didn’t want to work for anyone I didn’t think would be a good public servant.”

    Also, she wanted to run campaigns based on facts and legitimate issues, and she was opposed to name-calling and mudslinging.

    “I didn’t have a lot of stomach for it,” she says. “Really, you get jaded because there can be such mean and nasty things you have to contend with.”

    She now prefers to work with nonprofit organizations. “There’s a whole lot less stress.”

    ‘A KEEPER’

    Dillard never considered making the leap from consultant to candidate. “Political consultants make the worst candidates,” she says.

    Faust recalls once overhearing Dillard being asked about potential political aspirations.

    “We were at some gathering and somebody asked Mary, ‘When are you going to run for office?’ She stopped and looked at them and said, ‘Oh, good Lord, I don’t want to be a politician.’ Then she paused — and she had a little twinkle in her eye — and she said, ‘I just want to own a few.’

    “That’s when I knew she was a keeper.”

    Faust, Selz and another friend, Virginia Brissey, have had a “wonderful sustaining friendship” with Dillard for more than 30 years.

    “We’ve been through divorce, death of a husband, death of a child,” Dillard says. “We have a nice dinner once a month and it’s better and cheaper than therapy.”

    The friends — who dubbed themselves “Foursquare” — have traveled together to Thailand, Mexico, Italy, France and other countries throughout the years.

    The trip to Thailand was sponsored by Heifer International, so they visited and spent the night at a rustic village in the remote northern part of the country.

    “We slept in a bamboo hut. The people were subsistence rice farmers and they had no electricity. For water, they had cisterns on the mountain,” Dillard says. “You don’t realize how rich we are until you experience their lives.”

    After dinner, the local women, wearing ornate silver headdresses, performed their “spinning song,” then asked the American visitors to share something from their culture. So Dillard and her friends found themselves dancing the hokeypokey together in northern Thailand.

    “I feel like I’m the most fortunate person in the world,” she says. “I have wonderful friends and a wonderful family and am married to an exceptional man.”

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