by Sharon Lau
photography by Kathleen Arellano
Mary Ann Melleby, University of La Verne Trustee, has some keen advice for young adults: You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. In the late 1970s, when women were returning to the work force, Mary Ann first went back to school. At age 32, with two small children in tow, she was one of the founding students in the Campus Accelerated Program for Adults Program at the University of La Verne. Ultimately, she graduated in 1979, cum laude, with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism. Her following life journey, while impressive, would not be easy.
Mary Ann grew up in a small town in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Her parents did not have a college education nor did they have the financial resources to send all their children to a four-year college. Only her two brothers went, and so Mary Ann decided to attend nursing school at the Thomas Jefferson University in the 1960s. Even though she was unable to attend a traditional college, Mary Ann wanted to have an academic profession; therefore, she took all the college prep classes she could and graduated top 10 in her class. “Basically, for women back in my day, you had a couple different choices. You could be a teacher, secretary, work in retail or go to nursing school. I couldn’t go to college so I became a nurse.” After Mary Ann completed her three-year credential program, she worked as a nurse in Phoenixville Hospital, Pennsylvania, and in St. Joseph Hospital in Syracuse, New York, until her then husband, Tom Harvey, now professor of education at the University of La Verne, landed a job at the Claremont Colleges, which prompted a California move for the family. Tom Harvey soon left his Claremont College job and gained a position at the University of La Verne. During this five-year time, Mary Ann was a stay at home mom, raising her two children. “I had a yearning for a college education that I never got; that is the reason why I returned for my education,” she says. The opportunity presented itself at the University when she was able to take advantage of the tuition waiver program, which was part of her husband’s employee benefits.
When she first started as a La Verne undergraduate, she did not know what major to pick. Fortunately, the CAPA program recognized 70 coursework units from her nursing program in the sciences, which counted as her general education credits. She remembers fondly taking a Life Planning for Women class taught by Professor Maggie Wargin. The class, through aptitude tests, challenged her to review her abilities and career choices. Her results pointed to medicine, science and journalism. “I had a nursing background, which was science based,” she says. But she did not realize that the press releases she wrote for her church and her children’s nursery school were journalism. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but a parent board needed things to be done, and so I did it. What I wrote was getting printed in the paper.“ Professor Wargin had a contact with Marilyn Morrison, a hospital public relations director at Arcadia Methodist Hospital. Marilyn encouraged Mary Ann to shadow her for a day. Marilyn showed her work responsibilities such as writing brochures and media relations. It all appealed greatly to Mary Ann. “The hospital was not foreign to me because of my nursing background. I was completely comfortable being there.”
Although Mary Ann had made a career choice, another problem arose. “When I came back to the University, I thought to myself, ‘I can’t write. I’m 32 years old, and I’ve been at home with the kids for five years,” This was a challenge she did not know how to solve until she attended her first writing class with David Werner, emeritus English professor, who told her to start writing with her personal experiences. Mary Ann remembers his words, “You’re 32 years old; you must have some experiences.” She wrote about the birth of her first child, John Harvey. The English professor told her he thought it was a “fantastic paper.” This encouragement gave her needed confidence. “To me, that is what La Verne does; it gives you the confidence that you can do this.”
Mary Ann recalls going to class with 18 and 19 year olds and working on the Campus Times newspaper with them. “I would take my kids to class on Wednesdays when we edited. I was the front-page editor and did the headlines. There were no computers, and it was all hard type,” she laughs. Her classmates would take her children to the dorms and give them soda and candy. She would even help counsel some of her classmates when they had boyfriend or girlfriend problems. “It was really fun. I remember that very fondly of that time. It’s like a family here.” She took on an internship at the same hospital that prompted her career. By then, she knew she wanted to be a hospital PR director. To this day, she believes strongly that Professors Wargin and Werner were instrumental in helping her set up her life course.
Before graduation, Professor Esther Davis, the chair of the Communications Department, and the woman Mary Ann considers her mentor, called her in and told her that she received a call from a West Covina hospital that was looking for a PR director. She asked Mary Ann to apply; she won the job. “Everything just sort of fell into place. La Verne set that foundation for me.” She returned to the University in 1991 and earned her master’s degree in organizational management. “I felt like it was a door that was open to me, and why not take it? I believe strongly that if doors open, and there is opportunity, you should snatch it. My undergraduate experience was so important to me that I wanted to come back here to get my master’s degree.” By then, she had changed jobs and was working as an assistant administrator at the Hillcrest senior community in La Verne. “I loved my master classes here; they were small group and very intense on weekends and Monday nights from 6-10 p.m.” Students came from different organizations and companies, and they bounced ideas off each other. “Wherever I went, I used the skills, strategic planning and organizational management that I learned, and it benefited my career. I just love the place, and I want to be here all the time. If I could go to school forever, I would.”
Mary Ann is an active life-long member of the Church of the Brethren, starting in Pennsylvania and continuing at the La Verne Church of the Brethren. She has served on the University of La Verne Board of Trustees since 2000 when the Church of the Brethren had representative members. The Pacific Southwest District selected four representatives, including Mary Ann. Since, the Church representative clause for the Board of Trustees has been removed, but Mary Ann still continues to serve on the Board. “I decided to join the Board of Trustees because La Verne is very important to me. It changed my life. So I wanted to really make sure the quality of education that I received, and the experiences that I had, would be afforded to others in the future.” As a member of the Church of the Brethren, Mary Ann wanted to make sure its values would remain. “I think it is so important to uphold the mission and values of the University as a trustee. We look at the big picture and make sure the quality is here. I want to make sure all the core values stay in place. It is daunting sometimes because we see everything: the financial situation, administration, and the faculty and student perspective. All these things come together, and we have to see what is best for everyone. It is working together for the betterment of the whole. We want to make La Verne a very distinctive place where people want to come here. As long as the Board will have me, I’m willing to serve.” As a very involved trustee, Mary Ann attends every graduation ceremony possible. She jokes that it is important to sit up there and look down and see all the “product.”
Now living in a gated senior community in Sun Lakes Country Club in Banning, 55 miles east of La Verne, Mary Ann faces a long commute, which mutes her everyday La Verne involvement.
Nevertheless, she is used to long commutes. She did the drive for her Montclair Monte Vista Water District Public Affairs Director position. “Thirty-two years of PR, and I loved every minute of it,” Mary Ann says. She enjoys solving problems. As a marketing administrator at Hillcrest, she saw that some residents wanted to bring their pets with them when they moved in. Hillcrest did not have a pet policy. Mary Ann talked to people, did a survey to see how many people wanted pets, and researched pet policies at other communities. Then she drafted one herself. The Hillcrest Board adopted the policy, and it is still intact today. Personally, she considers the biggest reward of public relations to be the many times she successfully assembled, promoted and carried out huge events like the healthcare 5-10k runs and employee appreciation dinners for the hospital.
During the 2006 drought when she was at the water district, she launched a campaign to convince customers to reduce water usage. By messaging and assembling a multi-disciplinary approach to communication, the campaign was eminently successful and prompted residents to reduce water use by 20 percent. Mary Ann eventually received a prestigious award for this campaign. Nevertheless, the reduced water use made the company’s revenue go down. She laughs when she says she received a call from the finance people telling her to “stop it with the messages.” She says proudly, “But that’s a good thing because that is when you know what you were doing was working. When you take a project from beginning to end, and it works, it is great. I like a challenge; I’m a high achiever.”
Her confidence led her to the Banning Pass Water Board, where she ultimately won a four-year seat on the Board, following her initial appointment to fill a board vacancy. Mary Ann says this was something she wanted to do. She applied for the position along with 13 other candidates. April 2011, she was appointed to the Board to finish the term of the previous board member. In order to keep her position, she ran for re-election in November 2012, starting her campaign in August. She recruited a campaign treasurer and manager who assisted her in campaign planning. “I had signs, buttons, brochures, fundraising envelopes. I had a really cool Melleby sign, and my stepson did the graphics on it for me. I came up with a campaign format that said, ‘Experienced, Informed, Dedicated.’ I knew a lot of people here so I wasn’t concerned that they didn’t know me.” Her area of representation was the whole district from Cabazon to Calimesa. “I had a big voting block with key people in other neighborhoods who were telling people to vote for me. I participated in a forum where we had to speak for two minutes and answer peoples’ questions. I bought ads on many local newspapers and in the Sun Lake newsletters. The whole campaign cost me $5,000 to run. I used every good dollar of that, and I was successful.” She coordinated a complicated schedule and made presentations at open houses, chamber of commerce events, and business expos in the parking lot of Home Depot. “I showed up to things and was visible. People knew that I worked for the water district, and having 13 years of experience in the water industry really helped. I really wanted to be on the board, and I was the incumbent. I didn’t just want to serve for that short period of time; I wanted to serve for another four years. I was very motivated; I wanted to use my knowledge and expertise to move the district forward. Choosing to run was easy; the whole process was very strenuous. It was three months of being out there everyday.”
Personal hardship occurred. Her second son Scott Harvey announced that he was going through a divorce, and, two weeks later, he lost his job. On the night of the election, her campaign staff had a party to wait for the votes to come in. From the very beginning, she was significantly ahead. Her supporters and friends left at 11 p.m., but her son stayed the night. Every two hours, they checked the votes online. Finally, at 8 a.m., all the votes were in. “It was really exciting. When you win an election, it is exhilarating,” she says. After doing a full term on the board, Mary Ann was up for election again in fall 2016 but decided not to run because it took too much time, and it was too stressful. She wanted to spend more time with her current significant other, Richard Collier, whom she met at Sun Lakes Country Club at a September 2014 party. She smiles widely at the mention of his name. “He is a character and a sweet guy, and he keeps me going.” They are in a recreational vehicle club together and are actively planning trips.
There is happiness in her life now, but there were times of grief. Her first son John Harvey passed away in 2000 at age 29. He was playing basketball at UC Irvine and collapsed. He had an undiagnosed heart condition, and his death happened very suddenly. He was engaged to be married and was a student studying to be a minister at the Church of the Brethren Bethany Theological Seminary. “He was a brilliant young man. We still miss him,” says Mary Ann. He started out at UC Irvine as an engineering major for three years, and then he decided to go into history and theater arts because he was also a singer and an actor. During his junior year, he took a year off and joined Church of the Brethren Volunteer Service. “During his first year, he was a lobbyist for the denomination in Washington D.C., and he loved it,” remembers his mother. It became a paying job, and he worked hard at it until the Church, facing budget cuts, did away with the position. John decided to attend Bethany Seminary but was urged by the Church to return to UC Irvine to finish his degree. That was when he was fatally stricken. To honor him, Bethany Theological Seminary awarded him a posthumous degree. “He would have been 45 this year. We think he would have been a superstar in the Church of the Brethren, and probably running it by now,” says Mary Ann. “You go through your grief process, and I dealt with my anger by researching, using my medical background and typing in keywords like ‘sudden cardiac death’ and ‘cardiac arrest,’ and I came up with four different things what it might have been. When the coroner finally called after two months, it was one of the ones I had written down. ‘Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,’” says Mary Ann. It is hereditary condition in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick; son Scott’s test was negative. Scott, now 41, has two daughters and is the facility supervisor at the Orange Unified School District, responsible for the maintenance of 42 schools, with a staff of 80 who report to him. Scott attended the ULV Communications Department before transferring and graduating from California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, with a communications degree.
Unfortunately, this is not the only close family death for Mary Ann. When she retired in May of 2011, she and her second husband went on a September vacation. During the trip, he suffered a fall. A hospital in Arkansas told him he was fine, so the two continued on their trip even though he was in much pain. When they were in Texas, heading home, the Arkansas hospital called back. A doctor’s review of the x-rays found a broken neck. They drove cross-country to a Fontana hospital for surgery, where he died from complications. “We were married for 17 years, got divorced in ‘91 and remarried in ’95. And he died in 2011. I’ve been through a lot of loss. What’s important to me, and what really helped, I guess, is that I am just a strong person, and it depends on your inner strength. I’ve been through divorce. My son died. My husband died. My parents died. I discovered that I am a very strong person. What helps is the community.” With her husband’s death, she realized she had many families: her immediate family in Pennsylvania, La Verne Church of the Brethren family that she’s had since 1972, University of La Verne family, water community family and her Sun Lakes family. They came to her, and she felt their love. During both her husband’s and her son’s funerals, the Church of the Brethren was completely filled, and her friends from Sun Lake drove out to La Verne to attend. “It’s that kind of support, and being in multiple communities is the key thing. My faith from being a long-time follower of the Church of the Brethren for so many years also helped.” Mary Ann attributes her inner strength to her experience going through divorce in 1991. “Up to that point, I didn’t feel that strongly about myself, but after that I really felt strong, and that I could get through this. It set the stage for me later on.”
In retirement, Mary Ann is an active member of her community. She belongs to Young at Heart, a social club that meets for dinner and dancing, another club that attends concerts, a recreational vehicle club, and she plans to join a chorale group. “Since I’ve retired, I really like to cook. I bake Richard a cake every week. Currently, we are addicted to putting puzzles together; we have done 50 puzzles in the past two years. And the University of La Verne is my hobby.” She is also a huge NASCAR fan, having spent 15 years volunteering at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana as a hostess in the VIP suite. Her late husband was a sports car driver, her dad was a mechanic, and she grew up with the ‘50s muscle cars. Since her first race experience she says she has been “hooked on the noise and energy.” She follows NASCAR religiously and enjoys thrilling activities like rollercoasters and speed although she does not think her heart can take it anymore. “I like to have a good time, and I like to do things for other people.”