No matter how jet-lagged, or sweaty, Austin tourists may find themselves when they reach the Texas Capitol Visitors Center, they'll find a breath of fresh air waiting for them just inside its doors: Mary Jackson.
Her positivity is the reason Leigh Gershman nominated her for our "Hi, Who Are You?" project. And she wasn't the only one; four other listeners wrote in about Mary. One said if Texas were still an independent Republic, she would be the "ambassador to the U.S."
"I think my key is we all feed off of each other's energy, and I have absolutely noticed how easy it is to turn the grumpiest person around," says Mary, who heads the Texas Travel Information Center. "Because if you throw a positive attitude at them, there's something in our genetic makeup that makes people match others' energy."
Leigh, who has worked with her for two years, says Mary is eager to share the history and culture of Texas and Austin with travelers and goes out of her way to connect with everyone who visits. On one occasion, Mary wanted to show a group of visitors a local hangout, so she took them to it on her day off.
"That's how outgoing Mary is for her visitors," Leigh says.
Mary estimates she's encountered about 455,000 visitors in her 35 years at the Capitol and though she doesn't remember that specific adventure, she's sure it happened.
"This is a thing, and it's really fun," she says. "Whenever I'm seen somewhere by a visitor, they're like, 'Oh, it's the travel lady!' They come over and they want to buy my food, and they're so excited to know someone in Austin."
Mary graduated from UT Austin in 1984. Soon after, she heard about a job at the Capitol telling people about live music, tacos and Texas. She says she already knew the best restaurants and parking spaces around Austin, so she figured she'd stick around for a while.
"This was gonna be my little summer job that I just couldn't bear to leave," she says. "I am still doing this because ... this is a job where we really love to come to work every day."
Mary says she grew up with a deep appreciation for the state having been born in Bellville, "the cradle of Texas liberty." Now, she gets to share the history and lore of her home state.
"I go upstairs and I feel all this amazing history, and you understand your place in the universe," she says. "That makes you more eager to share it with others. And people love Austin and they love Texas. Texas will always have that mystique with people."
Most of Mary's visitors are from out of state, although she meets the occasional Austinite showing their family and friends around. She said more than a few of the visitors have made Texas their home after their first stop at the Capitol.
Not all of them stay.
She says there was a man from California who moved here after visiting in April, only to realize that golfing in Texas summers "feels like someone is holding an air dryer in my face."
"Native Texans are proud; our converts are prouder. They are ready to buy the boots, they're ready for a tour and they're ready to invite family to their new home state," Mary says. "They love it and embrace it and it humbles me how proud they are to be Texan now. So, c'mon and move to Texas."
Security has tightened since Mary first started. Back then, she used to park at the front and walk right in.
"It was very easygoing. It was open 24 hours a day," she says. "You could have drinks on Sixth Street, then walk in and spin around the rotunda. It was a thing; I'm not saying it was a smart thing."
Mary admits she did her fair share of spinning back in the day.
"Our troopers would say, ‘Ma'am you need to settle down and get back home.'"
Still, she says, if you're a taxpayer, this is your building and you should walk in like you own it.
Mary was one of Leigh's first work friends when she started at the visitor center. She says she's never seen Mary lose her cool, despite answering the same question 500 times a day.
Another listener who nominated Mary said she's a ray of sunshine, who has never met a stranger.
"I don't know how to say it except that positive energy can really turn a lot of people around," Mary says.