Close Encounters of the Mary Kay Kind
Doug types too much...
April 30, 2019
I was in the 2nd grade when President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas. What began as a routine day in school was brought to a halt when a teacher from down the hall entered our classroom without knocking. This in itself was odd. She walked straight to Mrs. Shortland’s desk at the front of the room. They whispered to each other. Mrs. Shortland’s face changed. After the intruding teacher left, Mrs. Shortland informed the class that the President had died and we were all released early from school.
Every school room back then posted a calendar with an upper panel that sported cameo headshots of all of our presidents in order with dates of service printed below each portrait. The calendars were provided by the local milk company that had a great gig delivering hundreds of single-serving cartons of milk that were consumed during student breaks mid-morning each day. The calendars had the milk company’s logo at the bottom. John F. Kennedy’s confident smiling face was the latest addition to the portraits.
As we quietly filed out to walk home, I remember looking at JFK’s face on the calendar and thinking to myself that he looked so much more alive than all the other old fogies, so how could he be dead? This was the guy who told us we were going to land on the moon within 10 years. In the days before the press reported darker personal issues, he looked like he had a great family. And they were always sailing or playing football in the back yard.
That weekend, none of the 3 TV channels ran cartoons. Even as a young boy, this was a seismic shift. I may not have understood the full import, but I knew this vibrant man I’d see in the news who talked of mental and physical fitness and going to the moon was gone and things would not be the same.
President Kennedy left this world on November 22, 1963.
There was seemingly no reason to kill such a cheerful guy.
Something else, the antithesis of gloom and doom, was also happening in the Dallas area that year.
She started out as Mary Kathlyn Wagner and then became Mary Kay Ash, but most of us know her, or knew her, as simply Mary Kay.
She was born in Hot Wells, Texas, in 1918 and died in 2001 at the age of 83. She married at 17 and had 3 kids. She sold books door-to-door while her first husband was serving during World War II. They divorced after his return.
Eventually Mary Kay went to work for a company called Stanley Home Products. She was an excellent employee and trainer. So good, in fact, that when a man was introduced into their office pool, Mary Kay was asked to train him. After she’d done her bit with the new guy, he was promoted over her. When she complained, her boss didn’t understand why she was upset.
“There you go, thinking like a woman again,” he chided.
Mary Kay quit the business. That business, at least.
By 1963, she’d married again to a guy named George who was supportive of her efforts to break out. Initially she attempted to write a book about women getting into business, but that morphed into a business plan for what she considered her dream company – Beauty by Mary Kay.
A month before launch of an actual storefront in Dallas, George died from a heart attack at the breakfast table. Mary Kay pressed on with the help of her two sons.
Banks wouldn’t give her a business loan because she was a woman.
On a Friday the 13th, using a $5,000 investment from her oldest son, she launched Mary Kay Cosmetics on the heels of her husband’s death when she was 45-years-old.
Since its inception, Mary Kay Cosmetics has consistently made lists as one of the 10 best places for women to work. Mary Kay’s vision became a multi-billion-dollar empire that continues to thrive today.
Mary Kay had a stroke in the mid-1990s which forced her to hand over the reins to her son Richard. Mary Kay Cosmetics continues to sponsor millions of consultants world-wide who move a wholesale annual volume well in excess of 3 billion.
My wife Judy was a Mary Kay consultant for a while back in the 1990s. During her time, she enjoyed it, and liked the women she worked with. Judy read a few of Mary Kay’s books including MIRACLES HAPPEN. Mary Kay’s books covered the gamut of how to act right – everything from sales to appearance to how much to tip the maid when staying in a hotel.
Mary Kay products are top-notch. I still use the skin care products. I know I don’t look that great, but trust me, I’d look much worse for the wear if I didn’t use her stuff.
In the early 1990s, Judy made plans to attend a Mary Kay convention in Dallas. She asked if I wanted to tag along. But of course.
We stayed in a hotel within walking distance of Dealey Plaza, infamous for being the location where JFK was assassinated. We walked down there our first night in town. We were accosted by a homeless guy who “acted out” the assassination, occasionally inserting critical facts that bolstered his telling. After he was done with his performance, he stuck out his hand. I gave him a 10-spot and he happily danced away into the darkness he’d first appeared from. Hey, anybody that can jump into the street to the spot where JFK was hit in the head, and call out the exact frame number in the Zapruder film that captures it, deserves the 10 bucks in my opinion.
The next morning was the first day of the convention. Me tagging along was originally advertised as “Judy goes to the convention every day while Doug lounges by the pool at the hotel,” but I compromised and agreed to go the first day. As it turned out, I was glad I did. But I didn’t start out glad.
Day one was registration. It seemed like it was 10,000 women and me lined up outside in summer Dallas heat. Everyone dressed up. I’d worn a beige-colored suit. Big mistake. There wasn’t much shade and the concrete we were standing on was reflecting heat even though it was only 9 o’clock in the morning. It took almost 2 hours to get inside. We stumbled our way to our arena seats.
As we sat down, I was dripping – sweat beads made their way down my face and the back of my neck. I had big circular sweat rings that had bled through the underarms of my jacket. The suit had wrinkled badly. I was one hot looking mess. I felt like we’d been through the wringer and we’d just sat down. I was not happy.
The convention kicked off with a live show peppered with testimonials and Vegas-level song and dance numbers. Broadway lighting and sound. The crowd ate it up. I gotta say it – I was impressed.
And then Mary Kay came out.
That place went to eleven. I was never fortunate enough to attend a Beatles concert, but I imagined this is what it had to have been like. Shrieking, screaming, sobbing, stomping. It was like a massive tsunami they were all riding together. They say the blast of audience noise for the fab four was akin to standing next to a roaring jet engine. I can attest. It was deafening. The ovation for her entrance shook the stands. Our arena seating was moving, swaying, shaking under the strain of unrestrained girl power.
It took a couple of minutes for enough calm to settle in so she could speak.
Mary Kay did not disappoint. Even though she was in her 70s then, she was still everything you hoped she might be. Intelligent, funny, inspiring. The embodiment of a class act. I’ve seen a few people on stage in my life that seemed to radiate, like beams coming off them. She was one who radiated.
She spent part of her time telling the story of Stanley Home Products where she quit after being passed over. Mary Kay lore says she went back later and bought Stanley Home Products outright and had the pleasure of firing her old boss who’d passed her over. I swear I’ve heard that somewhere, but my trusted sources tell me I’m making that up. It’s great urban legend fodder, though. If it didn’t happen, it should have.
During our time in Dallas, we were allowed to tour the glistening golden skyscraper that is the world headquarters for Mary Kay. We got to see her high-rise office with everything in its perfect place. We got to walk through cavernous pristine dust-free rooms with people up on platforms, outfitted in lab coats, stirring the contents of huge vats with paddles.
One employee took a break and came over for a drink of water from a fountain next to where we were standing in line. He removed his protective mask and sipped. After he got a drink, I asked him what was the worst thing about working there. He smiled, told me it was a good place to work, but the downside was he went home every night with his tongue tasting like alcohol.
He laughed before he put his mask back on. “And I don’t even drink!”
Later in the week, I got to visit the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald aimed his rifle from a 6th floor window. They have the corner he fired from plexi-glassed off just like it was that day in 1963.
Upon our return from the Dallas convention, I couldn’t get the experience out of my head. It wasn’t that we’d met a homeless performer at Dealey Plaza one night who would spark the writing of my play BEYOND MERCY. It wasn’t the afterglow of touring the Mary Kay facilities in Dallas, or going to the Book Depository. No. It was her. Mary Kay. I was so taken with her authenticity. I was in such admiration of her example.
Yeah, she had excellent products, but that personality. People loved this woman. They would do anything for her.
And what’s not to like? Mary Kay wanted women to succeed in a very big way. Many have and continue to do so.
Judy got to meet her once in Syracuse, New York. It was an event that Mary Kay was not supposed to attend. But she showed. It was like Elvis falling from the sky. People just wanted to touch her. Judy was a couple of people deep with her hand extended. Mary Kay passed by, stopped, and retreated a few steps to reach through and shake Judy’s hand.
“You see, miracles do happen.”
I suspect this is like touching a Beatle.
I never got close to Mary Kay like Judy did. But I do have a personal connection. I have a letter Mary Kay wrote to me in response to a letter I’d written to her.
Upon our return to upstate New York, I was so moved by our Dallas experience, I felt driven to write to Mary Kay. My letter started out telling her what I hated about going to Dallas. I complained about the long registration lines, the heat, and my rumpled sweat-soaked suit. But then I went on to tell her how much I appreciated her being an inspiration to so many millions of people, specifically women. I thanked her for sharing her gifts and walking the walk.
I’m guessing, but it was probably 3 weeks later when I received her personal reply that was typed perfectly on light pink paper adorned with the Mary Kay letterhead featuring her cameo portrait. Boldly signed at the bottom. I gotta tell ya, I was touched. When I sent my letter, it was with no expectation other than to thank her. It never occurred to me that the founder of a multi-billion-dollar company would take time out of her day. I’m sure she had plenty of other things to do, but she stopped and took a moment for me.
In her letter, she thanked me for writing and expressing kind words. She ended it by advising me to get my suit to the drycleaners so I’d be ready for the convention the following year.
Mary Kay died on her favorite holiday. Thanksgiving. November 22nd, 38 years to the day marking JFK’s assassination. It seems an odd coincidence, or perhaps an appropriate one.
For me, she’s the good overwriting the bad.
Mary Kay broke the mold. I’m tempted to say they don’t make ’em like that anymore. But that’s a little harsh. I still meet people in my travels, both young and old and in between, that amaze and inspire.
She was one of a kind. A true individual who didn’t just want greatness for herself.
Her philosophy was the hierarchy she lived: God, family, career. In that order.
Her plan was simple. You can be a confident woman and you can stand on your own and you can make a difference.
Mary Kay didn’t just talk the talk.
And long after her passing, her spirit continues to inspire.
She was quite the pioneer.
A class act.