Ray Duckler: Caring for kids, Mary Jane Wallner never goes out of style
Mary Jane Wallner hangs out with kids on the playground while taking a break from her office work at the Merrimack Valley Day Care Center in Concord on November 5, 2013. She was honored for her 40 years serving as director of the day care program with an anniversary party on Tuesday night. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Where do you begin?
Chairwoman of the House Finance Committee? Nearly 3½ decades as a member of the House? The face of day care in this region? Mom, wife, friend?
How about starting with the picture displayed the other night, at the Unitarian Universalist Church? That’s where Mary Jane Wallner was honored for her 40 years as executive director of Concord’s Merrimack Valley Day Care Service.
She’s shown in the photo with her two little children, wearing blue jeans, sandals (no socks) and a black Afro that brought to mind a Brillo Pad, a French poodle and, most important, the 1970s.
“Styles change,” the flier reads, “but Mary Jane remains!”
Indeed she does.
Still directing the day-care center. Still thinking of ways to incorporate socialization into the lives of children. Still welcoming refugees and kids with disabilities and behavioral issues and language barriers. Still looking out for single parents who have little money and nowhere else to turn.
And still stretching a modest budget, a skill that politicians in Washington, D.C., could learn from.
Her hair, short and stylish today, isn’t as tall as it once was, but the woman casts a giant shadow that is respected and appreciated in many areas of the city, and beyond.
“We are the sailors of Mary Jane’s ship,” says Marianne Barter, who’s been on board for 12 years.
“I’ve worked for years primarily because of Mary Jane,” says Gail Gagne, 35 years with the center and still going strong.
“She always has your back,” says Nancy Nason, also in her 35th year.
They’ve stuck around and watched Wallner do her thing, from pushing for legislation to expand and protect day care, to creative fundraising methods, to caring for kids, and then caring for their kids as well.
Once, a single father came in with his child, and the staff remembered the man as a notorious hair-puller back in the day.
“A loyal staff,” Wallner says with pride and appreciation. “I’ve had a board that has been supportive of our staff, even though like most child care places, we don’t pay lots of money.”
Or receive much, either. While affordable day-care services are as vital to the growth and well-being of society as any other institution, it remains low on local governments’ priority lists.
As board president, Christy Bartlett says, “With our culture, we don’t think about supporting child care issues. We leave it up to the parents.”
Which is why Wallner never met a spaghetti dinner or pumpkin sale or pancake breakfast or Christmas tree sale or raffle for diamond earrings, donated by a local jeweler, she didn’t like.
In fact, she was fine with the attention she received last week at her party, as long as it doubled as a fundraiser.
“We are underfunded in New Hampshire,” Wallner said. “Research tells us that when it comes to working with kids, the younger they are, the more problems you will avoid later, and that will save you money in the long run.
“New Hampshire hasn’t gotten there yet,” she continued. “We’re starting to see us putting money into programs for young families and children, and it will pay off in the end, but we still have a long way to go.”
She’s been at this a long time, before she even made her splash here. The daughter of a J.C. Penney manager, she’s an Indiana girl who grew up playing in the cornfields of a town called Winchester, population 4,000.
Her parents stressed community involvement and volunteer work, so she joined VISTA – she called it a “domestic Peace Corps” – and went to Chicago.
There, she worked with poor, troubled kids, and marveled over their reaction to owls and birds during trips to summer camp in Wisconsin.
“The sounds would make them nervous,” Wallner said. “But they were comfortable in Chicago hearing sirens.”
The Wallner era here began in 1973. Since then, she’s successfully lobbied for legislation that created a mandatory course for divorcing parents if their kids are younger than 18.
“Sometimes adults are having problems, and how that affects kids is often overlooked,” Wallner said. “This can help to get people sensitized on what (divorce) means to their kids.”
She’s championed legislation to prevent child abuse and neglect; added five sites to her day-care empire; secured health insurance and a retirement program for her staff; and rolled out a red carpet of warmth and acceptance to any single parent.
That means kids ordered to day care by the courts, undisciplined kids, disabled kids, kids who don’t speak English, and on and on.
“She takes them who others won’t take,” Bartlett said.
“She’s the smartest, most ethical person I know,” said Shawn Taylor, Wallner’s assistant and an employee at the center for 40 years. “She has the vision, all these years later.”
That’s why they threw her a party.
Speaker of the House Terie Norelli spoke to a crowd of about 100. So did U.S. Congresswoman Annie Kuster. And board and staff members, too.
Meredith Telus, a young mother and board member, summed up her experience this way: “If you’re looking for child care in Concord, good luck. It was such a relief to bring my kid to a Concord institution.”
At 67, Wallner was asked about her immediate future, about when she might sit back and hand this institution to someone else.
But passion and dedication, unlike haircuts, never go out of style.
“I’m not ready to retire just yet,” she said.