Iconic Tyler historian Mary Jane McNamara dies at 91

Local historian Mary Jane McNamara at the Smith County Historical Society. (Christopher R. Vinn/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

Beloved local historian Mary Jane McNamara passed away Thursday at 91 years old. McNamara was held in high esteem by her colleagues and friends. A 2011 Tyler Morning Telegraph article about her work was simply titled, "She is the archive."

In 1942, Ms. McNamara began her career as a librarian, working a three-month, unpaid apprenticeship for a shot at a job. She spent the next 28 years at the Carnegie Library, now home to the Smith County Historical Society, before moving to Tyler Junior College in 1970.

Ms. McNamara retired in 1992, but she never slowed down. She began working more closely with the Historical Society. Interim President Jon Anderson credits Ms. McNamara with single-handedly keeping the organization alive during its leanest years.

"History is just the very breath of life for me. I love it," Ms. McNamara said in a May 2015 interview. "Everything that was a book and printed thing was precious to my family."

Ms. McNamara never married, joking that she was going to be the boss or else.

She was a devout Catholic, spending countless hours serving her community through her faith. For more than 50 years she delivered cookies to patients at UT Health Northeast during the holidays with the Catholic Daughters of America.

"The passing of Mary Jane McNamara is truly an historic loss for Tyler," Bishop Joseph E. Strickland said in a statement to the Tyler Morning Telegraph. "Certainly because of the wonderful woman she was but also because she was a living library of Tyler history. She was a font of information that will be sorely missed. The fact that she not only knew Tyler but that she truly loved Tyler makes her death a very personal loss for many of us who also love this Rose City. May she rest in the tender peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

In May the Historic Society founded an internship program in her honor. Ms. McNamara has become part of Tyler's history herself, joining the stories she spent a lifetime lovingly telling anyone who would listen.

Ms. McNamara's niece, Liz Thurman, described her aunt as a generous woman who left a mark on many people. 

"We lost the physical presence of our dear Mary Jane but she left such an imprint on so many that the spirit of her will be with us always," Ms. Thurman said in a statement to the Tyler Morning Telegraph. "Her passion for helping others, giving her energy and expertise for all who asked was without limits. She poured out whatever she had to give, and all who crossed her path left with their cup full. Along with all of this, those of us who spent time in her presence will miss the gift that was part of life every day, the storyteller."  

Historical Society member Sam Kidd and his wife Sherry worked with Ms. McNamara at the museum for many years. "She was a noncomplaining person, even when she was exhausted she expressed it in a positive way," Kidd said. "The adjectives that come to both of our minds -- she was gentle, intelligent and caring. She's been a very valuable resource for local history. She had an amazing memory and the thing that Sherry and I both remember the most about her was that she was so caring. Whether it was children she was teaching or showing kids through the museum. Anyone she worked with, whether it was an adult, the mayor or children, she just had a love of teaching them or showing them, or giving them her knowledge."

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Twitter: @TMT_Cory



Cory is a multimedia journalist and member of the Education Writers Association, Criminal Justice Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has appeared on Crime Watch Daily and Grave Mysteries on Investigation Discovery.

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