Mary Ourisman

Former U.S. ambassador transitions from service to her Path North

Karen Floyd: Ambassador, thank you so very much for allowing us to visit your beautiful home in Washington, D.C. Does it have a special past?

Mary Ourisman: Oh, this home has a wonderful history and is a very spiritual home. It has an interesting story. It belonged to an organization called Fellowship House. I do not know if you heard of this house or not, but, for 30 years, it is where people came together in all faiths, all faiths. Here, they prayed together for world peace. James Baker and other religious leaders were active parts of this home, which was overseen by a man named Doug Coe. He was known for the prayer breakfasts for the President. He recently passed away. I have always loved the vibes of the house. I feel like it has a duality that embodies the patriotic and love of country, but, at the same time, has a spiritual side to it.

Q: Did you make changes when you moved here?

A: Only the upper levels. This room remains the same with the moldings and all the other architectural elements. Actually, this whole floor and the staircase were always like this. Now, the very top floor of this house was divided into little dorm rooms. Each of the rooms was filled with young people from all over the world doing their missionary jobs and duties or fulfillment. The purpose was for them to bring their faiths and learn more about their faiths and how — what they could do with their faiths on a world stage. In other words, those dorm rooms were filled with people that were of all religions; Muslim, Christians, Buddhists, you name it. Everyone living on the top floor basically did the work. I suppose it was similar to the Blair House, only it was not attended by the heads of state, but Cabinet-level posts or senatorial posts and people working within our government attended. When we bought the house, it had a big wall-to-wall map with little pins all in it where they had prayed for various things to happen like for the Berlin Wall to come down. So, you can certainly understand why it has some very good vibes.

Q: Do you have that map today?

A: Yes, but it is now rolled up and in the attic. It was awfully big because, as I said, it was ceiling to floor.

Q: You are also a recipient of an award recently for the transformation and the restoration of your home in Florida.

A: Yes, we were recipients of what’s called the Ballinger Award, which is given to one house every year for restoration of a historic property. Our house was not that historic as it was built in the ’50s. It is in a little enclave of five houses, and all of them were built in the same year. They were also designed in the same year. The same architect, who was a student of the English architect that did Regent Park in Great Britain, was the creator. We took the house and kept the bones as we did in this house. We opened it to the waterway. Because it was a very long little tiny narrow lot, it was like a blank canvas because nothing was there. So, we decided to make a really pretty boat dock, which became part of the look instead of just an ugly little wooden structure sticking out in the middle of the lot.

Q: Who helped you design the long garden that spans the property to the waterway?

A: His name was Keith Williams, and he’s with Mario Nievera in Palm Beach. They have done beautiful homes. But after doing my house and after we won the award, we have now done a circle in the middle of all five houses. After my house won the award, The Preservation Society, which is very important in Palm Beach, decided that all of these houses would be preservation houses and that they couldn’t be torn down or, from the outside, changed that much. So, they all have the same look.

Q: When did you begin your love of art?

A: I just talked to my sister, who lives in my hometown of Texas, and asked her if she could go find a little country church. When I was 16 years old, I was asked to paint the background of the Nile for their baptistery. They wanted the Nile River as a backdrop to where people would be baptized. I asked my sister if she could find the little church and see if the painting is still there. I suppose that was the beginning. There was no art teacher in my little hometown. But I always loved art because my uncle was an artist and my grandmother was an artist. I am not a studied person in art, and I lack knowledge of painters and the history and so forth. But I do have a studio in this house. I’m very excited because I have a new studio in Palm Beach that I’ll be moving into this weekend. I will have a place to really make a mess, you know, because it is a messy hobby, I must say.

Painting provides an artistic outlet for Mary Ourisman.

Q: Is that your reprieve from the constancy of the world, art?

A: Yes, and sometimes I cannot paint because it is just a busy life here.

Q: So, talk to me about your childhood. Where did you grow up?

A: Mexia, Texas, spelled M-E-X-I-A, and a little tiny Texas town. Some of the wonderful old parts of it are just kind of crumbling now, unfortunately. It’s a great place to grow up.

Q: And your father was a dentist? Was he the only dentist in the surrounding areas?

A: Yeah, I think he was. Especially oral surgeon and an orthodontist, yes.

Q: And tell me about your mother?

A: Well, my mother was amazing. She really was a multitalented woman, although she didn’t have much time, I think, to pursue her talents. I had a brother who was severely afflicted, and, therefore, she spent most of her time taking care of my brother.

Q: When you see the dedication that a parent has for a child, as a sibling, it changes you, doesn’t it?

A: It does, and, quite frankly, I don’t think I understood it until I was an adult. We just grew up with my brother being there and living at home. We didn’t really think it was an unusual thing to have a brother that lived and never spoke, and he rocked a lot. He had to be fed with a spoon. He wore diapers. But we lived in the country, and we could put him on the back of the horse and pull him around the yard and had a lot of fun with him. We would take washtubs out in the garden and fill it up with water with the water hose. You know, it was a simple and good life. My brother was 8 years older than I am, and my sister was adopted. And she was adopted, and 9 months later I was born. So, I always give my sister the credit for my being on this earth.

Q: Do you think your family circumstance made you an overachiever?

A: Yes.

Q: How did having a special needs sibling make you push a little harder?

A: Well, I think, when you have a sibling like my brother who wasn’t able to do or learn certain things and yet he was my father’s only son and the first-born child. My father never really discussed it much, but I am sure it must have been a source of sadness to not have a son to do all those things with that fathers like to do with their boys, especially in Texas. But my adopted sister fulfilled that role with daddy because she loved to shoot guns. She loved to go hunting. She loved to do all the things that daddy loved to do. I was always striving to rise to a level that they would be proud of.

Q: Ambassador. Your parents would be very proud of such an accomplishment. How did that come about?

A: Well, as a Texan, when he was governor, I signed up early on to support George Bush as a presidential candidate. By the way, I served as ambassador in President Bush’s last four years of his administration. Not the first four. I had been appointed to the Kennedy Center Board. My husband and I are very active with the Kennedy Center, which we really love and are grateful to have here in Washington. So, the President asked me, “How are you enjoying your appointment of the board?” And I said, “I love it, thank you, Mr. President.” But then I said, “Quite frankly, you know, we’ve always been involved with the Kennedy Center, and we always will be.” He asked, “Is there something else you might want to do?” I said, “Well, if it was substantive and it was something that you felt I could do.” At the time, I had absolutely nothing in mind. I just meant maybe something with the arts or something more that I could work on. And so, he asked me to go into the White House and speak to a lady who happened to be in charge of personnel appointments. I didn’t even realize that at the time what might be in store. When I went to the interview, she asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. What I can do? I just want to help in whatever way I can.” Afterwards, when I finished the interview, she said, “I think you’re the first person that’s ever come into this office and said, ‘I just want to serve my country.’” I had no idea in what way.

Q: That’s wonderful.

A: I was standing right here in this room when I was tapped on the shoulder by one of the President’s personal friends. He said to me, “Mary, if you had a call from the President tomorrow, and he asked you to be ambassador to Mauritius, what would your answer be?” And, instinctively, I don’t know why, but I held up my hands, and I said, “I’ll be there, sir.” He said, “Keep that in mind. That’s the right answer.” Then, immediately after they left that night, I went to the computer to learn about Mauritius. My husband is going to kill me, I laughed. But that wasn’t what I was offered. I was offered the Caribbean, Barbados, and the Eastern Caribbean with the seven small countries. I was so honored and pleased to go there because I knew the Caribbean pretty well. My son lived in the Bahamas, and we had had a home in Jamaica for many years as well. So, I was fairly familiar with the culture and the people of the Caribbean. So, for me, it was just really being given a post that I would enjoy and love.

Q: Was he excited when you told him?

A: I think he was, yes. Quite frankly, he has always been supportive of me in whatever ventures I try. Having his own company and his own business all his life, he was used to doing it his way and would council me in that direction.

Q: How did you meet your husband?

A: It is part of the long and windy path, I guess. I had moved here to Washington under circumstances that were painful and hard for me. After leaving La Jolla, California, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth to live, I went to a career counselor to decide what I could do and how I could make a living at 46 years old. I was starting over. We talked about my love of politics. I had done a lot of fundraising for various charity groups. I remember the career counselor said, “You can make a living raising money in Washington as opposed to doing it for free for charity.” And so, that’s why I moved to Washington. How did I meet my husband? That came about a year to a year-and-a-half later. I was doing fundraising for Newt Gingrich before he became the Speaker of the House. I set up small dinner parties around an industry, and those people would fly in from all over the country, whether it be in the coal industry or the insurance industry or whatever. My purpose being, of course, later, that I would go back to them to see if they wanted to be part of this organization called GOPAC. My husband, being a car dealer, was invited to a dinner centered around automobile dealers. I asked him for the dinner, and he said, “Well, I’ll go to dinner with you if you’ll come to a cocktail party with me before.” That is where we ended up meeting some of our still best friends, or where I met them. They were his friends. It was a party for Jack Palante at the Cabinet. Then he went to dinner with me.

Q: Was it immediate for you?

Mary Ourisman served as U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean from 2006 to 2008.

A: No. No.

Q: Was it immediate for him?

A: He says so, yes. So, he says.

Q: You once said there was no orchestrated path in life’s journey. I’m paraphrasing. Can you explain that?

A: I think we can all formulate these ideas in our mind as to what maybe our aspirations or dreams might be. But then I think you have to be open to life — I don’t necessarily believe in pushing that. I feel that God puts you on a path, and you can try to maneuver that as best you can, but things sometimes block your way. Things don’t always go the way you think the path might take you. So, one of my favorite little books is “The Road Less Traveled.” My road has been the one that’s been the less traveled, I should say.

Q: There was no road map for you, and that is certain. Was transitioning from serving as ambassador difficult for you?

A: Yes. Every ambassador you’ll talk to will tell you this. I think that we, well, at least I did, and I’m sure most ambassadors do, loved serving and being there to wave the flag for their country in whatever way that is. I was very fortunate in that I had people in Barbados that were so wonderful. The local people, and which make up most of the staff of the embassy, were people that had been there for 25 years, some of them, working at the embassy. They were such lovely, nice people, and then I loved the rest of the staff from the State Department who would come and go and move around a lot. But that ceremony where they bring down the flag and the Marines present it to you and you walk away, it’s a very moving moment.

Q: What is Path North?

A: It is an organization of people who are looking for a higher goal in life. It’s made up of major CEOs around the country or people that have had high positions with the government. Most of them have been very successful in financial ways. Many people lose connections when they get into leadership roles. They don’t have close friends because they’re so busy being the CEO, you’re not supposed to be telling your life secrets to people that you work with or people that work for you. This organization offers a safe haven for people to come together to tell their stories and talk about things and then where they’re going from there. That is why we call it Path North. These people are looking for more to give back, how do you carry your star in the right direction. To hear people’s stories and how they overcame certain problems in their lives is impactful. Just because you’re a CEO and just because you’ve made a lot of money doesn’t mean you haven’t had hardships along the way. Many people look up to these people and think, “Well, they’ve got everything. Everything has been easy for them.” But no one, no one has had that easy path in life. It’s always something: children, or parents, or obligations, or sicknesses, or you never know. How life affects them and how they overcome problems is what it is all about.  E


 

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