Mary Duvall's life has not only been composed of multiple breathless moments, but also of an exceeding number of moments that took her breath away.
As the terrifying news startled her and the world on 9/11, Mary was in the midst of a New Orleans convention she had planned for 1600 air carriers. Having returned from abroad in 2000 to promote New Orleans as a destination for major U.S. and International conventions, she organized and produced VIP special events for 50 to 7,500 guests. "Of course all flights were canceled, so no one could travel," she recalled. As she did as a young girl facing a crippling disease, Mary transformed a sad, impossible situation into a remarkable memory. "The Neville Brothers were scheduled to entertain, but only Aaron was in town. After much thought, I called Aaron's manager, asking if he would sing a few songs to sooth our shock and grief. I also arranged for a priest who opened the evening with prayer. Aaron stepped onto the stage, sang 'Ave Maria', 'Amazing Grace', and then a hush came over the audience as he continued with 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'. When he broke into 'God Bless America'we began to feel our grief and anger changing into determination. The audience rose to their feet, began singing with Aaron, and even the kitchen staff emerged to join in this amazing musical memorial. "
The Ft. Bragg, N.C. native moved at age three to Frankfurt, Germany where she attended international school until she was 12, learning about the ravages of war and its consequences. "If I misbehaved, my wonderful dad, a U.S. advisor during the Eisenhower reconstruction period, reminded, 'Remember Mary, you are an ambassador for your country!'"
On a cold December day, the "tree-climbing cat", as Mary described herself, silently struggled with pain and weakness in her hips. "When I could not get up, my folks were called, and they rushed me to a Frankfurt hospital where they pronounced I had Polio! Paralyzed from the waist down, I was in braces and a wheelchair for some time. Most of us fighting to survive Polio were able to transform fear, grief and loneliness into something funny. I knew those of us who could do that would survive!"
Mary attended University of South Carolina, married and moved to New Orleans where she discovered, on trips to the Bayou, the struggles of the Crawfish families. She gathered all her marketing talents and in 1980 focused on introducing and promoting Louisiana products abroad. She entered Louisiana in the 1984 International Food Trade Show (SIAL) in Paris, topping it off with an elegant VIP reception, inviting all the elite in the industry. Skeptics vowing "Never!" departed raving over the variety of ways she presented previously frozen Crawfish. "The most popular was the delectable soft-shelled crawfish, a novelty to the French! It was my most exciting accomplishment!"
"After divorcing, I moved to Paris to continue international marketing. I loved promoting New Orleans and Louisiana music. A special honor, and my most rewarding event, materialized in 1993, when I was asked to coordinate the 50th D-Day Commemoration in Normandy, a commitment requiring a move there. For 13 amazing months, I worked with French officials and American Veterans. I never tired and was so thrilled 35,000 veterans attended."
Another breathless moment brought Mary to Hilton Head in 2005 when she was forced to flee her home and cherished possessions to escape the devastatingly destructive, hurricane Katrina. "A few photos were saved and other items moved to the second floor, but all on the first floor was lost. When my friends offered their condo, I was most grateful. Moving to the beauty of Hilton Head and its beaches was very therapeutic."
Since her move, Mary has pursued genealogy, another love of hers. "I gathered a group of ladies, organized and chartered the Hilton Head Chapter of the S.C. Society Colonial Dames XVII Century, founded in 1915." Mary is Organizing President of the chapter, which works very closely with the Heritage Foundation Library. "The library is one of the finest family history and genealogy libraries in the U.S.," noted Mary, who is also Co-chairman of the D.C. April 2011 S.C. National Tea. "Hosting this is a great honor for S.C.," smiled Mary as Ziggy, her constant little companion, wiggled in her lap as we approached the conclusion of our three-hour visit. In looking back over her trip down memory lane, she quoted Winston Churchill, "You can never, never give up!"
Lessons from Dad: "He instilled in me the importance in strength of character, honesty, and survival."
On Surviving Polio: She not only survived, she overcame dragging her leg, and later became a S.C. State champion sprinter!
Spends her Spare Moments: Working retail
Famous Venues She's Marketed Louisiana: the MIDEM International Music Convention and Cannes, France
One of her Heroes: "Peter Coors, a great American patriot, who contributed a substantial amount of money [to the D-Day event]... and shipped a tractor-trailer load of Coors beer for the event!"