AUSTIN — “You asked, where am I now?” the voice at the other end of the phone call said. “Tell them I’m in my pajamas here in south Austin, feeding the neighbors’ pets.”
If Brownwood native Mary Gordon Spence ever decided to write her autobiography — and that’s not a bad idea — she might title it, “My Irregular Life.”
“Ever since the first grade, I never wanted to have a regular life,” Spence said.
“I’m kind of free to live an irregular life.”
Even her first name is irregular, unless you happen to be from the Deep South. She goes by “Mary Gordon,” not just “Mary,” if you please.
Toward that goal of living an irregular life, Spence has found herself living in places as diverse as Mexico, Nicaragua, Stephenville and now Austin since she graduated from Brownwood High School an unspecified number of years ago.
Along the way, Spence has taught students ranging from kindergarten to college levels, written Texas history materials, drafted legislation, directed statewide environmental programs, published books and magazine articles, and worked for former president Lyndon B. Johnson. Throughout her career, her storytelling, wit and wisdom have been continually sharpened, and she is now in demand as a speaker, writer, facilitator, emcee and humorist.
Spence even had to make up a word to describe one of the many hats she wears — “humorlospher.”
However, the title of her book, “Finding Magic in the Mundane,” perhaps best describes what she does in front of audiences. The book, published some 10 years ago, is available on Amazon.
After living in some seemingly irregular places, Spence settled in Austin 30 years ago. But in many ways, despite the years spent in Latin America and in other cities in Texas, she said, “I never left Brownwood.”
Part of that was because her parents continued to live here until their deaths. Part of that is because many good friends continue to live here. And part of that is because she remembers in detail the stories and lessons she learned growing up here. And she is not shy about sharing them everywhere she goes.
While her communication skills frequently earn her invitations to speak before newspaper associations, educator groups and others like the League of Women Voters, Spence is quick to explain that her primary vocation right now is that of grandmother.
“It’s such a sweet gift to be able to be a grandmother,” Spence said. “I’ve got two way-above-average children and four way-above-average grandchildren. Some of them live eight miles north of me, and the others live eight miles south of me. My greatest joy is being a part of their school days from time to time.”
After graduating from Brownwood High, Spence went to Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) in San Marcos to study music, but after a year transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. Despite changing her major numerous times, she still managed to graduate on time with her class. She later earned a master’s degree from la Universida de las Americas in Puebla, Puebla, Mexico. She also studied advanced mediation at Harvard-MIT’s School of Public Affairs, and is a master facilitator.
“I never thought I would live in the city,” Spence said of her three decades as a resident of Austin. She made the same complaint that many Brownwood residents have after visiting Austin — “The traffic is awful” — but said with her children and grandchildren relatively close, she has been able to create a small town for herself within a big city.
“It’s a feeling of community, and I’m happy in my home. But we have enough people here right now,” Spence said with a chuckle, knowing that the state’s capital city continues to be a magnet for newcomers.
After graduating from the University of Texas, Spence was prepared to venture away from not only Austin and Texas, but also from the United States — and that irregular life she had wanted since childhood was on the road to reality. The brother of a friend from Brownwood was director of a school in Nicaragua, and so it was that she made the connection that took her to her first teaching job there in 1969.
She returned to Texas, was married to her college sweetheart (they’ve since divorced) and embarked on that irregular series of occupations. They have included teaching English as a second language classes in Mexico and Texas, and serving as director of Archives and Records and director of the Adopt-A-Beach program for the Texas General Land Office. But about 14 years ago, she quit her job with the state, intent on “telling my own stories instead of someone else’s stories.”
“I think that was irregular,” she said, “but now I speak at a lot of conferences, and at a lot of school districts around the state.”
Spence not only files away a lifetime of stories in her agile memory, but she also keeps various clippings and mementos. One of them — a photo of her from elementary school showing her with the first Hula-Hoop on her block — is posted on her website, www.askmarygordon.com. She also lists among her school-age accomplishments being crowned Valentine Queen in first grade, and later being named Miss Friendly Brownwood High School.
“That’s really not bragging,” she is quick to point out.
This month, Spence has been looking through a trunk holding old letters she and her mother, Ruth Griffin Spence, had written each other. Her mother died in Brownwood in 1998, and her father, Roy Spence Sr., died here in 2009. Her siblings are Roy Spence of Austin, and Susan Spence, who died in 1992.
Ruth Spence’s words are well-known to many residents thanks to her 1988 book, “The Nice and Nasty of Brown County,” a must-read for local history buffs.
“One of the letters in my trunk shows I was off to Nicaragua on July 7, 1969, with my Spanish book and ukulele in hand,” Spence said. “I still have them both.”
Spence is able to keep an audience — and an interviewer — shifting between introspection and laughter as she tells stories pulled from experiences gleaned from growing up in Brownwood, as well as from life in general.
“Where you’re from is really important,” Spence said, “and I always tell people I’m from Brownwood. No matter where I’ve traveled or what I’ve done, that’s a gift. It spoils you for the rest of your life. So I’m curious about where people are from. That’s part of who you are. ”
Spence has often been quoted saying her sense of humor is the result of growing up in Brownwood.
“Not everybody grew up like we did,” she said.
Spence has studied people’s language and their homes, and she can often tell someone is from Waco, or the Gulf Coast or other places in Texas just by listening to that person speak. But because of our mobile society, she said doing so is not as easy as it once was.
She tells her audiences of how public schools were first integrated where she taught, and that the difficult process initially called for her as a white teacher to be assigned to a traditionally black campus.
Then there was the time she was riding an elevator before starting a job opening mail for President Lyndon Johnson. A last-minute wardrobe adjustment while she thought she was alone on the elevator turned to embarrassment when the Secret Service told her they had watched as she hiked her dress to adjust her slip. Closed-circuit cameras were in operation everywhere, agents told her.
In addition to her appearances before groups, Spence has become involved in the support of several non-profit organizations in the Austin area.
“I tell their stories,” Spence said. “Stories are everything.”
For the past 28 years, Spence has been heard regularly on an Austin public radio station.
“It’s amazing how many people recognize my voice,” Spence said. “I’ve decided I should never criticize anyone when I’m out, like in an elevator, because they will know who I am.”
While she hasn’t written much recently, she has been teaching English-speaking skills to groups from Japan and Korea several times a year.
“I adore doing that,” Spence said. “My goal is to have everyone who comes here from Japan and Korea talking with a Brownwood accent.”
Spence said she continues to be amazed at the connections Brownwood has with people she meets, not only in Mexico years ago, but also in Austin today.
“Brownwood connections just keep going,” she said. “And there’s something about being from Brownwood. What it is, I don’t know. We immediately have a reputation when people in Austin learn that’s where you’re from.”