Bay Ridge Resident Profile: Mary Ann Wilson
by Sydney Petty
A Well-Traveled Life
Bay Ridgers who treasure our annual Fourth of July parade will be interested to learn that Mary Ann Wilson of Decatur Ave., along with her friend, former Bay Ridger Teddy Mayberry, fronted the very first Bay Ridge Fourth of July community parade in their baby carriages in 1928, when they were just weeks old. It was an auspicious beginning to a life that would take her to many different countries, but always back to Bay Ridge.
Mary Ann Hollander met her husband Joe Wilson in Paris in 1950, where they both worked in the American Embassy. When they married she had to quit her job because, “In those days, married women were not allowed to work in the State Department.”
Joe was a commercial attaché with the State Department – the “go-to” guy for American businessmen who wanted to do business in the countries where Joe and Mary Ann were stationed, including Finland, Panama, and Greece.
Mary Ann’s job was to find a house in each foreign country they were stationed in, set up housekeeping, and entertain their many visitors.
Son Jim was born in 1959 when they were home for a couple of years. “Then the three of us moved to Calcutta for three years,” says Mary Ann. “If you can live through the first two weeks in Calcutta, you might be all right. It was extremely crowded and scary – the poverty is unbelievable – but it was there that I also met the richest people I have ever met. It is one of the most fascinating places.”
Fascinating also, because she got to know Mother Theresa there. “She was tiny!” says Mary Ann. “She ran a well-baby clinic in our neighborhood for people who couldn’t afford a doctor. She would have worked 24 hours a day if she could have.”
After Calcutta, the family spent five years in Sydney, Australia, and three years in Wellington, New Zealand, always returning to Bay Ridge when they came back to the States. They built their house here in 1965, and then it was back to Sydney for a few years.
Memories of Old Bay Ridge
Bay Ridge finally became Mary Ann and Joe’s permanent residence upon his retirement in 1977. “We were happiest here,” she says, “It was a good place to come home to.” Joe died about 20 years ago, but he instilled some wanderlust in their son Jim, who has just returned from a four-year sail around the world with his wife Heather and two sons – they sailed from the Caribbean around the world through the Panama Canal to the Pacific, stayed in New Zealand for a year, came back through the Indian Ocean, then rounded South Africa to the Atlantic.
An animal lover, Mary Ann’s memories of Bay Ridge include the first black squirrel she ever saw here. “When we came back from Wellington in 1977, I was playing bridge on East Lake Drive, saw it out the window and said, ‘what is that?’ I was absolutely fascinated.”
From her childhood she recalls, “There were lots of quail, but I haven’t seen any since I’ve been back. I haven’t seen or smelled a skunk – we used to have a lot of skunks, but no deer. We had a lot more rabbits then, and we didn’t have foxes like we do now.”
The beach on River Drive was “so big we had a baseball diamond out there – it was out past where the jetties are now.”
She recalls a time when two communities were connected, “We could walk across the inlet to Annapolis Roads, and the water didn’t get past our knees.”
A storm in the 30’s was so forceful it blew pine trees down along Clark Path. “The water was so high it washed out River Road, and, from my father’s steps at 52 River Drive, you could dive into the water.”
She and her family enjoyed the Bay Ridge pastimes – crabbing, fishing, sailing. “Mother had a sailboat built for us, and it was supposed to be impossible to capsize, but I had no trouble at all capsizing it.”
She has known all of the original Bay Ridge families, many of which still reside here (because who would want to leave?). Their familiar names include Collins, Ervin, Josey, Auth, Stellabotte, and Bussink. “Be careful who you’re talking about,” she cautions newcomers, “ because you might be talking to their relative.”
Mary Ann is the proud owner of “Laddie” – her calm and collected Cairn Terrier, who is ever by her side. She likes nothing better than to sit out on her porch and look down into her woods where she keeps track of the comings and goings of various fox, deer, and vultures. “I had black vultures out here one year that were really pretty – they were white underneath,” she recalls.
She lives across the street from her brother and his wife, Stanley and Ronnie Hollander, who live in the house that her parents built. Stanley was president of the civic association for many years and put in many hours of work for the community, as did Mary Ann.
Now, she is content. “I’ve had a wonderful life – there was not a place we were in the world that we didn’t enjoy at the time that we lived there. But you’ve got to have a place to call home! And this was it.”