BGSU President Mary Ellen Mazey owes her life to education


BG Independent News

As she departs as president of Bowling Green State University, Mary Ellen Mazey is worried about a sentiment gaining currency.

“There’s a lot of questions out there about the value of a college degree,” Mazey said during an interview earlier this month. “I just deplore that. We should be providing everybody in this country with the ability to be educated through at least a four-year degree.”

Mazey knows the value of education not just because that’s been her life’s work as a professor and administrator; she knows it because “I’ve lived the American Dream because of education.”

Mazey is retiring on Dec. 31 after six years as BGSU president. Provost Rodney Rogers has been named interim president.

In the past semester, campus audiences have heard the life stories of JD Vance, author of BGSU’s Community Read “Hillbilly Elegy,” Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Clarence Page, and former ESPN personality Jay Crawford about how they rose from modest upbringings to success.

Mazey’s story is just as compelling.

Mazey, 68, was born, the third of three children, and the first born in a hospital in Ronceverte in southeastern West Virginia. Her two brothers were nine and 10 years older than she was. They lived in a house without indoor plumbing.

When she was still a baby, her father died. The family subsisted on Social Security benefits. Her mother went to work at The Greenbrier resort when Mazey was 3. She did chef’s work. Her job title was “pantry girl.” The Greenbrier was popular, Mazey said, with the East Coast elite.

Mazey was cared for by family members. “I grew up with my cousins and my aunts,” she said. “She would pass me around to all these family members. She worked six days a week, and I would only see her but one day a week.”

Reflecting on her life, Mazey said, she wondered: “How did I learn to deal well with so many people?”

She traces it back to her childhood. “When you’re such a young age and you don’t have a father and have mother whom you love but don’t see a lot, you learn to deal with many types of people.”

Her brothers caddied at the Greenbrier, either driving with their mother or hitchhiking.

“We were a very fragmented family,” Mazey said, “but my mother always told us to work hard and get a good education, and you’ll go far in life.”

All three of her children proved the wisdom of her advice.

Mazey said her brothers, the eldest William Bruce King and Robert Bruce King, did well in school, but didn’t apply themselves as much as they could. Though they both did eventually go on to get law degrees.

Mazey said she “excelled in school.”

“I thought it was the best thing I could do.”

She attended a four-room school with eight grades.

When she was in high school, her brother Robert bet her $100 she couldn’t be valedictorian. At that time he was at the top of his law school class and on his way to a career that would culminate in a federal judgeship.

She won the bet. That meant she went to West Virginia University tuition free, and because once her mother remarried when Mazey was 10, she saved all her Social Security checks, her education was completely paid for.

She married her high school sweetheart Bruce Mazey when she was 21 and he was 20. “His father had to sign for him.”

With a degree in sociology and minors in political science and social work, she took a job as a grass roots organizer for a welfare rights organization traveling the backroads of West Virginia and even staging protests in the state capital.

She went back to get a master’s in WVU’s new geography program. She was attracted to the discipline because of the way it brought together the social sciences. She was encouraged to pursue a doctorate, which she did at the University of Cincinnati. Her husband had a masters in English and taught 27 years at Xenia high school.

On graduating, Mazey was hired to fill a temporary appointment at Cincinnati, and then two years later joined the faculty of Wright State University teaching physical and human geography and urban planning.

Her career in academia that would lead her to BGSU had been launched.

Now on the cusp of retirement, she’s ready to reflect on her journey. “Look where we came from,” she’s told her brother Robert.

Her eldest brother died in fall, 1995. His passing still pains her. ““My brothers were sort of like my father,” Mazey said.

He’d gone into the Marines after graduating high school. After the Marines he managed one of golf legend Sam Sneed’s golf courses in Florida. Mazey’s stepfather had been Sneed’s caddy before becoming caddy master at Greenbrier for 44 years.

William Bruce King – their mother traces her lineage back to the Scottish hero Robert Bruce – went back to school in his 30s, got a law degree, and practiced law until his death.

Robert Bruce King is United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

As a youth he caddied for the elite. Asked once what drove him to succeed he said: “I wanted to be on the other side of the bag.”

Like his older brother, he started his career in the military, enlisting in the Air Force. He was an investigator for the Office of Special Investigations.

When Mazey, whose husband died of cancer in 2010, attended her 50th high school reunion, her brother escorted her. “He insisted on attending everything with me,” she said. “We had a good time.”

Now that she’s going on sabbatical, she’s interested in collaborating with her brother in telling the story of their family. “He has such a knowledge of our family.”

Their version of “Hillbilly Elegy” would be a testament to the value of education.

(This is the first of two stories. The second will focus on how Mazey used what she learned throughout her academic career at BGSU, and her reflections on what she has accomplished here.)