When 70 year old Mabel Elaine Neal, better known as Downtown Mary passed away from heart problems on March 10th, 2002 the California city of Bakersfield where she lived, widely mourned her passing.
Her mourners included civic and business leaders, police and firefighters and others throughout the community.
What makes this story remarkable is that Downtown Mary was not a political or business leader, or a doctor or a lawyer but a homeless woman, a homeless woman many people had taken into their hearts.
For over the decades many people had spoken with Mary as she walked the downtown streets of Bakersfield, a city of 347,483 people.*
And with a milk carton full of water, Mary would water the flowers in front of downtown shops, and would sweep the sidewalks and pick up litter, these simple acts making the streets and sidewalks a little nicer for everyone.
In turn, merchants and other people donated food and other necessities to Mary.
Mary never talked about her past, but mourners still felt they knew her, and they were drawn to her by her warm smile and bright blue eyes. People walked up to her as they passed her along the sidewalk, while others would stop their cars to greet her.
How did Mary build such a large following, a following much of mankind would envy?
By warmly greeting people, and smiling and listening to them, these simple acts making them feel special. As a result she became special to them.
At Mary’s funeral service, one woman had written a song about her, while others recited poetry to her.
This humble woman, who had few possessions, touched many lives in ways the rich and powerful can only envy.
For there is something within us as members of the human species, that craves kindness and love and needs the respect of others and Mary in her own gentle way offered that in abundance.