Mary Sue Rich describes herself as “a people person.” When I first heard that self-description, I thought: Yeah, yeah, how often have I heard that – from everyone from hopeful job applicants to smooth-talking salesmen to vote-seeking politicians?
But during an interview on a chilly winter day more than a decade ago, as we tooled around Ocala’s westside in her SUV, I came to realize Rich really is a people person. We raced around west Ocala as the then-city councilwoman went about a series of errands and city-related stops. Everywhere we went – and I mean everywhere – everyone from children to old friends to city employees greeted Rich with enthusiasm and respect. At the Lillian Brant Center, a westside recreation center, I remember dozens of children running up to her car yelling, “Hey, Ms. Rich!” as she got out and waded through the youthful throng.
That interview was about a program Rich established in 2000 called One Ocala One America and its accompanying Racial Harmony and Cultural Awareness Task Force. The goal was “bringing together diverse citizens to promote racial harmony and encouraging appreciation and respect for cultural differences.”
Recently, I sat down with Rich again. This time, I wanted to ask the 82-year-old if One Ocala One America – which has been on hiatus since the onslaught of the pandemic – had indeed achieved what she had hoped. Are we more unified as a community? Have race relations improved?
The setting for the interview answered the questions, profoundly, if only partially. We sat in the lobby of the new $10 million, 41,000-square-foot Mary Sue Rich Community Center on Ocala’s westside, located on the site of the former Royal Oak Charcoal plant, a notoriously dirty corporate neighbor.
As passersby stopped to say hi and pay their respects to the grande dame of west Ocala, Rich looked around.
“Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t have been here,” she said of a gleaming, modern center. “So, yes, I think the city and county are getting more unified all the time. We’re getting more unified than we’ve ever been. But, of course, there’s still work to be done.”
“My hope was to bring all people in Ocala together – African Americans, Caucasians, Indians, all ethnicities”
Rich said Ocala’s booming economy has played a role in greater interaction among the races, noting that her once all-black neighborhood, Happiness Homes, now has several white families living in it.
“There are more franchises coming to Ocala and they’re providing more opportunity ….”
Yet, Rich the realist recognizes that improving race relations in our community is a work in progress, and the dream of a truly One Ocala is far from fully realized.
“I don’t know if this will become One Ocala, at least in my lifetime,” the mother of four and grandmother of 10 said. “But maybe in my children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes it will. That is my dream. That’s why anything that I’ve ever done wasn’t for black people, it was for all people.”
In the meantime, the woman who served on the Ocala City Council for 24 years, is basking in the pride and joy that the new community center has brought to not only her, but to the community she served.
Rich looked around the community center bearing her name – with a gym, a workout area, an indoor walking track, meeting/banquet rooms and a public library branch—and took it all in. How does it feel, I asked.
She smiled sweetly.
“I can’t describe the feeling,” she said. “It feels marvelous, awesome. I am very, very, very blessed.”