Mary McKenna, executive director of Southeast Texas Hospice has joined a very small club. After several nominations and a unanimous decision, McKenna has been named as the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year.

A pillar of the community for years, McKenna has been on the chamber’s board twice, is now a board member of the City of Orange Housing Authority, Lutcher Board and the Memorial Hermann Baptist Orange Hospital’s Advisory Board; and is an active member of St. Mary Church. “I tell everybody I ‘bleed Orange!’” she said.

Admirable accomplishments, but they are not what cinched her selection. According to Sabrina Gray of the GOACC, McKenna received some eight nominations this year. The forms were not available at the Citizen-of-the-Year announcement because of a technical glitch, but Gray said her actions after Hurricane Ike were a major part of it.

“She was my lifeline,” she said. “She came to the rescue of the chamber financially, helped us through some tough times, being we lost so much. Mary came through very generously, ‘What do you need? Tell me what you need! Tell me how much you need! I will do it, just tell me when, where and how?’ … she was a Godsend.”

The chamber was not the only organization McKenna helped. The very same day, she granted the Hollywood Cemetery $30,000 to rebury the bodies Ike forced from their resting place.

“For someone to be able to write a couple of checks like that, in a day, makes for a very generous person who was doing God’s will,” said Gray. “… That’s the way she looks at it, she was just taking care of the people around here.”

McKenna’s grant to the cemetery came after it was apparent that nobody else was going to do anything about it, she said.

“The very first day back from evacuating to see my house, I was in Lake Charles and I had to drive right by that cemetery,” said McKenna. “The National Guard was out there at that point, guarding the cemetery … It just wrenched my heart.”

She drove past it every day traveling from her damaged home in Orange to her uncle’s home in Lake Charles. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Something needs to be done, something needs to be done,’ and the story was out there that they just couldn’t find the money. I kept waiting for somebody to step forward. They went to the state, to FEMA, they went to the National Mortuary Board; they were just desperate,” said McKenna.

She claims it was at the Student of the Month ceremony in Deweyville, after talking to Judge Joe Parkhurst’s wife, she realized SHE was the one who needed to step up.

“I said, ‘What are they going to do?’ and she said, ‘Today is Joe’s darkest day, he just can’t see a way to get those bodies back in the ground.’ She was telling me all these things and I said, ‘… Can you call the judge and make an appointment for me? …We’re going do it, those bodies need to get back in the ground.’”

“They were crying, they couldn’t believe they were going to get the money,” said McKenna. She just felt the bodies should get the respect they deserved.

“It’s hospice’s mission to preserve the dignity of death and dying, so it was very much a fit for us and our mission, to help those families with their grief,” she said. “It’s bad enough to grieve one time, but to grieve twice … I just felt the hospice needed to step in and help.”

McKenna was born in 1950 to Peggy and Thomas A. McKenna Jr. The family moved to Orange when McKenna was seven years old. Graduating from St. Mary High School in 1968, she, “ran away to college,” attending the University of Dallas, then received a bachelor degree after two years at the University of Houston. Continuing her studies, she became a researcher at Texas Medical Center of Biosciences in Houston with a master’s degree in neuropsychopharmacology. McKenna researched and studied the way emotions chemically affect the brains of mentally ill patients, attempting to find medications that would correct the problem.

Today, she is at the helm of the first hospice group in the state of Texas and one of the first 20 in the United States of America that was founded over 30 years ago by her mother. Incorporated in 1976, Southeast Texas Hospice saw their first patients in 1979. “We are founders of the entire hospice movement,” said McKenna. The private nonprofit organization serves the Golden Triangle covering Jefferson and Orange County.

Hospice is a concept of care for the terminally ill person and their family. Care is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also offer a twelve month bereavement follow-up program after the death of a loved one.

“In the early days (of hospice), there was little money and little staff. I was doing research in Texas Medical Center, trying to develop drugs to help people with mental illnesses, and I thought, ‘You know, I could spend my whole life and never bump into a drug that might help anyone and working with this hospice, I know I will help some people.’ So, I came home.”

The selection process for Citizen of the Year began with nominations from the community. Then, Joe Love, chairman of the Citizen of the Year Committee, chose five committee members. They selected the Citizen of the Year after going over all the nominations.

On news of her selection, McKenna said, “I’m honored and humbled by receipt of this prestigious award from the chamber of commerce. I consider it a great privilege to live, to work and to serve the people of this community.”

She will be honored at the annual chamber banquet on Jan. 15 and will be the grand marshal of the Mardi Gras parade on Feb. 14.

Her free time is spent with her Alaskan malamute named Diamond. “She walks me every night. One of my great joys … running around the neighborhood with my dog.”

About Penny LeLeux

Penny has worked at The Record Newspapers since 2006. A member of the editorial staff, she has "done everything but print it." Most frequently she writes entertainment reviews and human interest stories, with a little paranormal thrown in from time to time.She has been a lifelong member of the Orangefield community.