Meet Your Neighbor: Mary Dryden

Mary Dryden may be one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders. Whether it’s recycling, litter, the city’s children, education, an art center, preserving architecture, entertainment, Dryden wants the best for her city. For her dedication to the Hub City, Dryden was named Ambassador of the Avenues in 2018 Best of the Pine Belt voting. She’s all about the city – its neighborhoods, diversity, unifying the Hub City’s citizens and making Hattiesburg the best possible place to live. And that was all before she became the District 4 Councilwoman on the Hattiesburg City Council. Dryden is a product of the Hub City. Born here, one grandfather, Edward J. Currie, was mayor, serving from March 1951 until July 1953, while her other grandfather, Clyde Praytor, owned a dry cleaning business in the Thirsty Hippo building. Dryden said that Currie, who died as she began the 10th grade, had an impact on her early childhood. Her parents having gone through a divorce, described as rough, she stayed with her grandparents quite a bit. And like her grandfather Currie, Dryden is adamant about her beliefs. Dryden said as young as she was she remembers him being a big supporter of John F. Kennedy, LBJ and the Civil Rights Movement. Dryden became the oldest of six children from combined families. Her mother had four children and her stepfather had two. “It was noisy, with no privacy whatsoever,” Dryden remembers. “It was Chinese Fire Drill a lot of the time, but I’m very fortunate.” When it came time for school, because there was no public kindergarten, Dryden attended Mary’s Kindergarten on Sixth Ave. before heading to Woodley Elementary, Thames, which was new at the time, and eventually Hattiesburg High School. At Woodley, Carter Carroll, who now serves as Hattiesburg City Council president, was in Dryden’s second-grade class. “That’s how far back we go,” she said. “That’s my first memory of him.”

The Hattiesburg Public School District was integrated when Dryden was a junior in high school. Outspoken about Civil Rights, much like other members of her family, Dryden remembers a speech she gave in class about what was happening at the time. I told them, “We should have so much for these students who volunteered to come here this year, because they left what was familiar to them. I admired them so much. I’ve had such positive experiences with people of other races all through my life.” During her senior year at HHS, where she was a member of the Future Business Leaders of America, Dryden was chosen as Miss FBLA for the state. Roger Wicker, now a state senator, was named Mr. FBLA. From this honor, she was encouraged to major in business. But the teacher bug bit her – bad!

A lot went into Dryden’s decision to become a teacher, especially the memories of her first (Margaret Davis) and second-grade (Robin Essary Dowdy) teachers, who she described as “phenomenal.” “I remember so vividly how she (Davis) taught me to read,” Dryden said. It made such an impression on Dryden that one day during graduate school she called to thank Davis.  “I realized how important that was.” 

Dryden and her husband are both products of the University of Southern Mississippi, where they both worked their way through college; Steve working and going to school full time. “We married real young barely 19 and 20,” she said, having initially met him at Thames Jr. High when she was 12 and he was 13. She notes that he was an amazing pitcher and she fell in love with him while sitting at Kamper Park watching him pitch. As a junior, Dryden had saved up the money she needed to finish college. But about six weeks into their marriage she had to have emergency dental surgery, having all of her wisdom teeth taken out. “It took a lot of my tuition money,” she said. At the time her mother, Carol Hickman, who recently turned 90, worked for MM Roberts, who the football stadium was named after, for a period of time. He then hired Dryden at the beginning of her senior year where she worked for six months before leaving to work for a pipeline company. She knew the company was closing, but they paid well and it helped her recoup money for school. She went to school for two more semesters before dropping out with only a year left. She went to work full time at First Federal, but really wanted to have a baby. “It was all my idea,” she admits.  When son, Jamie was 10 months old, Dryden wasn’t keen on putting him in daycare.  “I didn’t want to leave him, but sitting in church one Sunday I had an epiphany; such occurrences happened quite often.

“It occurred to me that when people got a student loan, it didn’t just pay for tuition, but also gave them some money for living expenses, so I figured if I went back to school full time, I wouldn’t have to be away from Jamie that much, just for classes.” Growing up, Dryden remembers wanting to be the best mother she could possibly be.  “I wanted to be June Cleaver. Growing up I was always watching families on TV. That was my picture of myself, in the kitchen with my pearls and an apron on. I was going to have these two wonderful children and my husband would come home at the end of the day and everybody would be happy. I think that was as far as I really thought.” Dryden realized if she wanted the lifestyle she’d hoped for as a mother who could be home more with her kids, she’d need a schedule that worked with that. She had always loved working with children, having grown up babysitting neighborhood children, helping take care of her own siblings and playing school, she decided to go into elementary education. That’s how she finished her last year at USM and Jamie was only in daycare for one semester. During this time, Dryden did her student teaching at Camp Elementary, where she taught first grade.

After graduation, she taught kindergarten for three years, spent time with the second grade at Mary Bethune, headed to Forrest County where she was supposed to teach first grade, but ended up getting certified in gifted education. She taught first through fifth grades at Rawls Springs and fifth graders at North Forrest. Dryden admits there are times when you start questioning what you are doing. When she pictured herself at a certain point, she said the lifestyle of a teacher is not what she picture. “I was having to leave my kids at home to fix their own breakfast to be on breakfast duty at school and I didn’t like doing that,” she said. She was always tired at the end of the day when she got home and didn’t feel like shehad a lot left for them. There were also a lot of meetings and 24 hours a day she said she was always preparing for the next thing. “I just started really looking at things and decided I didn’t want to be a teacher until retirement age.” She looked to majoring in art or school counseling in graduate school.

“I was planning to do school counseling, but when I found out they do all of the discipline, I knew that wasn’t who I was at all.” It was during her second week of school that she realized she wanted to study clinical psychology and not school psychology. And yet another change, but this time she stayed put and these days operates an office on Pine Street. “I went to school twice as long to do that, but goodness, has that been a learning experience and I’ve met some amazing people,” she said. “That’s the best thing about being on the City Council. I’ve gotten to know people I would have never met.” These days, she finds it ironic that she made this circular career path.  “I crave anything I can learn about business,” she said. “I’ve really worked hard to know what I need to know and opening up an office in 2005 I learned about business real fast.”

Dryden’s neighborhood has always been special to her, especially today. She and husband, Steve, live in the Currie House on Adeline, which she learned upon moving in that her distant cousins, Dan and Effie Currie, had built this house in 1917. She knew it was meant to be – the sidewalks with neighbors walking past, children playing in the neighborhood, sitting on the front porch each morning drinking coffee. The couple enjoys walking downtown, to the Post Office and most important, the dog is happy. “Sometimes we take for granted in a city like Hattiesburg that in all communities people know their neighbors. It’s just not the case at all. That’s what I love about living here.” It was also the start of her political career. “It seemed like a natural thing to do, get a house in the Oaks, throw my hat in the ring and that’s how we started out,” Dryden said. She credits Betsy Rowell, who ran for Hattiesburg mayor, served as a member of the Hattiesburg City Council for two terms and served as director of the HHDA at one time for the “tremendous difference in her life. “I will always think of her as a mentor and friend. I just love her dearly,” Dryden said. It was Rowell who mentioned to Dryden about running for city council, which she’d already been thinking about. Rowell helped her launch that campaign, explaining that she’d never done anything like that other than helping Carter Carroll when he was running and doing a little bit when her father ran for supervisor. “It wasn’t anything I’d ever done,” she said. “I wasn’t on student council, so I didn’t have that experience. But I just love Hattiesburg and the people who live here and I wanted it to thrive.” 

While her goals are many, she’d like to see Hattiesburg unified. “I feel like we’re headed in that direction,” she said. “It’s felt very fractured to me and I didn’t understand why.” Dryden said she quotes Mother Teresa quite often saying, “The world’s greatest disease is people who feel unloved, uncared for and unincluded.” “And that included word is a big one because a sense of belonging is a huge basic need,” Dryden said. “It’s right above food and shelter if you look as Maslow’s hierarchy – a sense of belongingness. It’s one of the underlying reasons for the problems that we have that are so daunting and difficult to solve. You can’t tell what people feel by looking at the outside. I don’t think we can begin to know somebody until we know their story.” Dryden said one of the most difficult things is having people judge me without knowing me. “But we find ways to get connected and you don’t have to look very hard.” She cites events such as the recent Eaglepalooza, which was held in the streets of downtown Hattiesburg. “It’s so amazing to have it back downtown,” she said. “There were so many people down there and it was exciting.”

Dryden is committed to leaving Hattiesburg better than she found it. “If there’s anything I’m able to do, because it’s not for me. It’s about them – the grandchildren, great grandchildren wanting to live here.”

The Drydens have two children – Jamie and Christy. Jamie and his family live in Brandon where he sells medical supplies.  His wife has the same counseling psychology background as Dryden. In fact, they worked together for a while in the Pine Grove system. They have two children. 
Daughter, Christy, is an orthodontist in Hattiesburg. Christy married Joseph Tatum, who had two children,“Christy said she would never come back to Mississippi and Jamie always planned to come back to Hattiesburg and raise his kids,” said Dryden. “It didn’t turn out the way either of them planned, but I’m so thankful to have one of my children here.” Between four grandchildren’s activities and their own involvement in a multitude of activities, Dryden said they feel torn a lot of times trying to get to things. “With all of the USM stuff we’re involved with, council stuff, we don’t like to miss Live at 5 or any of the other good stuff happening here. It’s hard to get to everything.”