The ballroom at the Ocala Hilton was filled with colleagues, friends and family members on January 31st, there to honor beloved community leader Mary Sue Rich—the first African American woman to serve on the Ocala City Council. Following 24 years of distinguished service, Rich made the decision not to seek re-election in 2019. She was honored for her tireless devotion, inspired leadership and enduring legacy.
The event, hosted by the City of Ocala Municipal Government, was a benefit to help fund an endowment for the Mary Sue Rich Scholarship at the College of Central Florida, where Rich earned her degree. Once established, the scholarship will be awarded annually to a Marion County Public School student who will attend the College of Central Florida to help future generations become leaders within our community. It will serve as a lasting legacy of Rich’s vision for “one community and racial harmony,” explained Ocala Recreation and Parks Director Kathy Crile, who describes Rich as a “tireless advocate.”
In her introduction of Rich at the event, Crile offered, “She really needs no introduction. You all are here tonight because you already know, respect and relate to her. Some of you relate to her because you share the same gender or religion. Maybe you relate because you look alike or you have the same hobbies or because you live in the same neighborhood. Some of you shared the same workplace and many of you share the same blood. But underneath the surface of the obvious, many of us relate to her because we share the same values,” she continued.
Crile explained that the reason the “what we share with her” notion was important was because, “We are honoring a lady who has made this her life mission.”
She talked about how Rich worked tirelessly to pave the way for all of us to make better connections, opened conversations that sometimes made us uncomfortable and helped us find ways to agree even when we had to disagree publicly to get there.
Many colleagues praised not only her dedication and commitment, but her genuine passion and compassion for not only the community, but for the public servants and organizations she worked with and alongside.
Through a moving video tribute, they celebrated her spirit, her forthright and courageous nature, her wonderful sense of humor, her love of our community, steady hand and the tremendous impact she has had on so many others. Among the praise were statements such as, “You are a true example of a public service.” “Many women do…things, but you surpass all that.” “You are one of the reasons this city is so great.” And then her son-in-law rose to speak and called her “A voice of true equality.” which was met with a thunderous round of applause and cheers from all those gathered.
When the grand lady herself spoke a few moments later, she offered, “There’s a song that goes, ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. I love Ocala and I can tell by looking around this room, seeing all of you, that you love me too.”
Rich expressed her gratitude to the crowd for helping endow her scholarship program and encouraged those gathered, especially future generations, to make decisions from the heart…as she has always done.
Although Rich will no longer serve on the City Council, her impact will continue to be felt in various ways. At her final City Council meeting, the other council members announced they would name a new community center after Rich, located at the site of the former Royal Oak Charcoal Plant. The Mary Sue Rich Community Center at Reed Place is an appropriate honor considering she led the charge to develop the center for the purpose of enhancing the quality of life for Ocala residents.
She also began the city-sponsored Racial Harmony and Cultural Awareness Task Force which operates the Racial Equality and Cultural Harmony (REACH) community outreach program. The organization annually awards the Mary Sue Rich Diversity Award to individuals and organizations that distinguish themselves by promoting cultural awareness and diversity.
For more information on these programs, visit www.ocalafl.org/i-want-to/learn/reach/about