Mary Wismar-Davis ’76 ’80MBA

The Story Behind the Storyteller

Mary Wismar-Davis ’76 ’80MBA helped define the College during her 32 years as editor-in-chief of Rollins magazine.

by Mary Seymour ’80 | photo by Scott Cook

MARY WISMAR-DAVIS ’76 ’80MBA SITS AT THE DINING TABLE IN HER WINTER PARK HOME. She should be comfortable, but she’s not. “I’m used to writing the story, not being the story,” she explains.

Indeed, Mary has spent many years highlighting the contributions of others while remaining in the background. Stories of Rollins—its alumni, students, and faculty, its history and educational initiatives—have rolled out of her office and into the homes of appreciative alumni.

The stories she’s written or midwifed are piled high on the dining table, organized into thick black binders: 110 magazine issues in all, representing her 32-year tenure as editor-in-chief of Rollins magazine.

“I’ve been doing some counting,” Mary says. “In my 37 years at Rollins, I’ve seen four presidents, eight job titles, 10 bosses, and 13 offices.”

If ever there was time for stocktaking, this is it: Mary retired from Rollins on January 6, 2014. She’s still astonished by the longevity of her career. “Some may call it crazy; I call it just plain lucky. I’ve spent my entire career at a place that has conjured up college memories daily.”

And yet she almost didn’t work at Rollins at all. In fact, she almost didn’t graduate.

In 1974, during her junior year at Rollins, Mary learned some devastating news: Her father had lost everything in a real estate partnership gone bad. There was no money for her college tuition, and she had to drop out. Mary chose not to return to her native Michigan, however, and stayed in Winter Park to waitress at The Hutch Coffee Shop.

She got to know all the lunchtime habitués, including Dan Riva ’81H, dean of the Rollins School of Continuing Education. After hearing her story, Dan offered her a receptionist position; as a full-time college employee, she would be able to attend Rollins tuition free.

For the next four years, Mary worked during the days and took a full course load at night, earning her BA and MBA. In marketing classes, she discovered she had a knack for creativity, especially writing copy and snappy headlines.

In 1980, she was offered a job as coordinator of alumni relations. She loved planning alumni events, but she loved writing the alumni newsletter even more. With her business background, Mary understood the power of print. She made a pitch for an increased publications budget and received the thumbs up from President Thaddeus Seymour to relaunch a full-fledged magazine.

The Alumni Record, as the magazine was called back then, published its first revamped issue in fall 1980. It was a labor of love and tedium. In those precomputer days, Mary cut and pasted the layouts herself. “I look back at those early issues and cringe,” she says. “But there’s no better teacher than experience.”

Mary studied other college magazines, attended professional conferences, and networked with other alumni magazine editors across the country. They were all in the same game: pursuing stories that would make people feel good about their alma maters.

“Two things kept me going: the desire to make a difference for Rollins and the pursuit of the elusive perfect magazine,” she says. “I’d like to think I accomplished the first!”

She did a bang-up job—good enough to garner more than 50 awards for excellence from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Florida Magazine Association.

“Seeing each issue come off the press was like giving birth,” she says. “Relief, exhilaration, and sheer exhaustion. And then came the inevitable ‘How am I going to top this one? How can I possibly come up with more story ideas?’ ”

But the Rollins stories kept coming—another successful alumni entrepreneur, a service project in New Orleans. Mary’s favorite piece? An award-winning memorial tribute to Fred “Mister” Rogers ’51.

Mary was charged with helping to define the Rollins brand in the 1990s, during Rita Bornstein’s tenure as president. She later became a key player in Rollins’ strategic marketing initiative, and in 2011 she was named creative director, dedicating herself to building a strong creative team before she retired.

“I feel fortunate I was able to put my Rollins education to use helping to advance the institution,” she says. “I’ve witnessed significant transition, but through it all the College’s heart and soul have remained constant.”

As for her own transition? Not so easy, although she’ll travel, spend more time with her husband, three children, and five grandchildren, and look for ways to give back—especially to the college that is so much a part of her.

At last, after so many years of Mary telling the stories of others, her story can be told.