OCALA, Fla. – At the young age of 80, Mary Sue Rich left her post on the Ocala City Council after serving for 24 years. Rich was the first black woman to be elected to the position. She represented the Northwest Ocala district.
“I felt really good having a voice as a woman. The other council members always respected me and my ideas and answered any questions. They also tried to encourage me. We always served well together,” Rich said.
Rich was born and raised in Ocala. She graduated from Howard High School in 1957 and went on to earn a degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Florida.
Rich was serving her community well before she was elected to the city council.
For three-and-a-half years, Rich worked as a corrections officer at Lowell Correctional Institute and Florida Correctional Institute. She continued her career working as a probation and parole officer for 23 years.
“It was very rewarding. I wanted to help people,” Rich said. “You never know why people do what they do.”
She went above and beyond to help parolees succeed once they got out of jail.
“There are a lot of people that I helped out. I helped a lot of people get jobs. There were people working that wouldn’t keep a job because they didn’t have food to eat, so I took them sandwiches for lunch,” Rich said.
Rich was first elected to the city council in 1995, the first black woman to be a voice for the residents of Ocala.
“To be honest, I’m a people person and I just felt, if I had a voice in the city, I can better enhance the lives of people in the black community and the white community and the city as a whole,” Rich said. “I was ecstatic and humbled when I was elected, When I first got on the council and I’m not saying anybody was biased, but they didn’t see what was going on in west Ocala and among the Blacks as I did,” Rich said.
Rich is credited for the city installing street lights, paving roads and adding playgrounds to the city’s western areas that were underserved and predominately black.
“Being on council is more than just going to meetings. There’s so much to learn and study. The other council members gave me a lot of respect. Several encouraged me to speak up and talk about different things,” Rich said. “I respected them, that’s why they respected me. If I didn’t know something, I spoke up and asked a question.”
Residents throughout Ocala know Rich.
She has had an influence on the community. So much so, Ocala recently broke ground on a 42,000-square-foot community center in her name.
The Mary Sue Rich Community Center at Reed Place will be located along NW 17th Place and will feature a gym, fitness center, library, meeting spaces and an auditorium.
“I’m so humbled and appreciative they are building this community center,” Rich said. “I hope it’s a place that everybody in Ocala will visit. It’s a place for seniors, a place for young [people], you can have a wedding there. It’s a place for everybody.”
Although Rich left her post on the city council in December of 2020, she said she wants to continue to give back to the community.
“I enjoyed every minute of it and I’m so happy that I was able to enhance life for a lot of people in this great city,” Rich said.
Rich said she’s noticed a difference in City Hall.
“It has improved so much because we now have a Black city manager and there are black people in most departments. They don’t only work on the garbage trucks as they did back when I was younger,” Rich said.
What will Rich do now that she’s retired?
Her hands are full with four adult children, nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
As a pillar of the community, Rich said she is still involved, advocating for the homeless, serving on the homeless council for Interfaith in Ocala.
She wants other women to know, they can accomplish anything, if they work for it.
“If they want to do it, go for it because I think you can do anything that you really try to do. But you have to be a person that’s nice to people. And you have to put in the effort to be what you want to be. You can’t expect somebody else to do it for you, you have to work hard and do it for yourself,” Rich said.
The Mary Sue Rich Community Center is expected to be completed in 2022.