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    By Meals on Wheels America

    She tore holes in the top of the chicken feed sack wide enough for her arms to fit through. Then, she cut a neck and, finally, a bit off the bottom to fashion a belt. She strolled around the campus of Tuskegee Institute in her creation, chest out, beaming with pride. Another student, a New Yorker, stopped her, asking, “Where’d you get that dress?”

    It wasn’t long before sack dresses hit the market in The Big Apple and across the country. To this day, she swears up and down that her prototype inspired the trend.

    Being a pioneer is nothing new to Mrs. Mary Lou Hale Ridley Wright. Her story came to light in a recent interview while visiting clients of the United Way Meals on Wheels program in Birmingham, Alabama, during Black History Month – clients who have experienced life in one of the iconic cities associated with America’s Civil Rights Movement. Mary Lou comes from a lineage of pioneers: her brother was the first Black forest ranger in Kansas; another was Wichita Falls, Texas’s first Black fire chief; and a third was the first Black pilot from St. Augustine, Texas, her birthplace, in East Texas, 90 miles south of Shreveport, Louisiana.

    Mary Lou is the only girl of nine children, born to the late Matt T. Hale and Mrs. Ada Hale. Among many accolades, she is the first African American teacher hired by the Jasper, Alabama City School System and the first African American plus-sized model from Jasper, Alabama.

    For our interview, Mary Lou is resplendent in purple from head to toe: a shimmery purple headwrap, purple beads around her neck, purple dangly earrings, and a velvety purple dress punctuated by wide rectangle eyeglass frames in radiant red.

    We were set to see her walk in a fashion show this evening, but COVID had other plans. Still, here she is, in all her glory.

    In her golden years, she’s fabulous, flamboyant, and flourishing. 

    Reflecting on her journey, Mary Lou beams, “I'm eighty-six, and I'm enjoying life.”

    And why shouldn’t she?

    She’s lived many different lives: professional storyteller, Sunday school teacher, secondary school teacher for over fifty years, jewelry designer and seamstress, to name a few—the latter inherited from her mother, who passed away when Mary Lou was a toddler. Before passing, Ada Hale would make clothing for her boys, Mary Lou’s biological brothers.

    As the only remaining Hale sibling, she’s known pain and loss. Her family has kept her grounded and continues to make life joyful.

    Mid-conversation, we hear a faint, familiar hum from Mary Lou’s walker cushion. She pauses and reaches to her left to lift it, revealing a hidden cubby where she keeps all manner of keepsakes, papers and her phone.

    Her eyes light up. It’s her grandson. She answers. 

    “I’m in the middle of an interview; I’ll call you back.”

    She told us he couldn’t wait to tell her he was offered a job at Auburn University. Her smile, which nearly stretches from ear to ear, transmits an ecstatic warmth.  

    “I wish everybody would realize that family is the most beautiful unit in the world,” Mary Lou gleefully asserts. 


    Mary Lou was born at the end of the Great Depression. In those days, everyone was poor, much less a family of 11. Her father, who’d lost an eye in World War I and collected a government check for his disability, saved up enough money to purchase seven acres of fertile land in Sain Augustine, Texas. The drumbeat of his life was raising crops, loading produce onto a truck and moving from neighborhood to neighborhood to sell them.

    After the loss of Mary Lou’s mother, he struggled to balance making a living and caring for “Sister,” as he fondly called her, his only little girl. 

    The story goes that her grandmother suggested her cousin adopt May Lou.

    “They had everything but wanted children,” Mary Lou remembers. “So my grandmother asked my dad if he would let them raise me. And my dad said let me pray over it and think about it. He came back and said, ‘I want Sister to have a good life. I can't give it to her but I believe these people can.’”

    There’s no greater love than a parent making a heartbreaking decision.

    At eight years old, her cousin took her in and relocated Mary Lou to Alabama, the “Cotton State,” more than 500 miles east of St. Augustine. They were educators who met in college at the Tuskegee Institute—the husband was a principal, and her cousin was a teacher—who, Mary Lou says, enriched her life with various cultural experiences. They taught her to play the piano and, on one occasion, traveled to Atlanta with her to bear witness to the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, considered by many one of the most consequential vocalists of the 20th Century. “They helped, tutored me, and gave me everything they could,” Mary Lou says. 

    Mary Lou’s father intended for her to have a good life; her adoptive parents would ensure that. 

    Mary Lou was encouraged to follow in their footsteps and attend Tuskegee Institute, one of the country’s preeminent black universities. In those days, it was a very regimented educational institute; students wore uniforms to class. Young women wore long-sleeve white shirts, long skirts, and grosgrain ribbons (certainly not her audacious chicken feed dress, which was allowable during leisure time). Students had to report to their dorms by 9 p.m. and sign into chapel every Wednesday.

    As an undergraduate in the '50s, Mary Lou saw iconic trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong perform on campus. In 1956, she marched with the local Voters League to protest the proposed gerrymandering of Tuskegee. During her senior year's graduation ceremonies, she met Dr. Martin Luther King, the eminent civil rights leader, who spoke at her college baccalaureate more than seven years before the “I Have a Dream Speech” and 12 years before his assassination. 

    During one of the most complex periods in American history, Mary Lou, a young black girl and the progeny of a loving mother who didn’t live long enough to see her baby girl mature into a young woman, was thriving. 


    Mary Lou is the mother of three beautiful daughters, all college graduates: one is a CPA in Atlanta. One is a PhD recipient. A third is a Birmingham, Alabama, police officer. 

    She has five grandchildren: three young men and two girls, 16 and 17. All three boys are college graduates, including two with Computer Science degrees and a third who attended Georgia Tech on a basketball scholarship and now plays professionally overseas. 

    Glowing with delight, she speaks of their accomplishments as if they were hers. She is now the matriarch of her family—the keeper of her family’s proud history and a wise elder from her scion who draws inspiration, encouragement, joy, and, most importantly, immortal love. 

    Their achievements are a testament to the lessons imparted by Mary Lou, the same lessons instilled in her by her cousin: that she could do anything, be anything, that she deserved a good life and that greatness was in their blood. 


    Mary Lou’s 16-year-old daughter had seen Mahogany, the 1975 romantic drama directed by Berry Gordy. The film’s protagonist, soul diva Diana Ross, stars as Tracy Chambers, a talented fashion design student. In the film, Chambers emerges as a famous fashion model in Rome before realizing her dream of becoming a successful fashion designer and launching her first collection. 

    She was enchanted by Ross’s performance, after which she decided she wanted to be a model. 

    Mary Lou, still a teacher then, obliged and helped her daughter sign with a Birmingham-based modeling agency. However, Mary Lou wasn’t comfortable letting her take the 35-mile journey alone to attend regular modeling lessons. 

    Mary Lou sat in the lobby during each lesson, passing the time by grading papers and writing lesson plans. Who was she to deny her? To tell a young Black girl, her daughter, she couldn’t dream big. 

    Then something unexpected happened.

    “We don’t have any plus-size African American models, and none your age,” the modeling agency manager quipped after approaching Mary Lou in the lobby. The manager continued, offering to draw up a family plan if there was interest in pursuing a modeling career alongside her daughter. 

    Raised by educators, Mary Lou saw seizing opportunities as not a matter of chance but of will. She accepted his offer.

    Mary Lou had never done any modeling before, but here she was, acting in television commercials, premiering in print advertisements, and more. “I did some of it all,” Mary Lou says. “I made all my money back, plus more.”

    You’ve lived an amazing life, I suggest. 

    “You know, I never thought it was amazing until I got [sick],” Mary Lou admits, referring to the congestive heart failure she suffered, a turning point in her life. 


    Because of her medication, Mary Lou, who lives in a senior living facility in Birmingham, must closely monitor her salt intake. Too much can be deadly for congestive heart failure survivors. It was the culprit for her ending up in the ICU. In 2020, one day at lunch in the facility, her legs became swollen and she lost consciousness. 

    An ambulance rushed her to the hospital. She spent 16 days there before transferring to a rehab facility. All while COVID was raging. 

    Mary Lou’s police officer daughter demanded to see her, as Mary Lou tells it, despite her medical team’s persistence. 

    As soon as she walked in, something felt off. “She said I didn't look right, and I didn't talk right.” Her daughter called an ambulance, and off she went again to the hospital, this time to receive six days of treatment for COVID. 

    “When I came out of there, I was on oxygen. I was in a wheelchair and weak as a kitten. But look at me now. The good Lord brought me back.”

    Today, she includes Prayer Warrior in her list of titles. “That is a person who prays for people,” Mary Lou said. “They don't ask for it. But if I hear a siren, I'll just pray for whoever is having a problem. I pray for people I hear about and my family.”

    Her grandson’s good news was one of those answered prayers. 

    Mary Lou doesn’t take her health for granted and is grateful for the role the local United Way Meals on Wheels plays in ensuring she has regular access to nutritious meals that support her health needs.

    “I used to be the family's cook,” Mary Lou says. “Every holiday, everybody would come to my house.”

    Now, she struggles with energy and has difficulty standing for extended periods. She requires a walker to stay mobile. 

    Every weekday morning, she receives a delivery of milk, juice, and, most importantly, nutritious, low-sodium meals.

    “It’s wonderful,” Mary Lou declares. 

    “I have the sweetest people that bring my meals. They are precious. I call them my angels. They are always polite and talk to me sometimes, which is good when stuck in a place. It’s a breath of fresh air when they come in.”

    Mary Lou draws energy from others, most notably her family. Their love, triumphs and faith in her and themselves keep her going. Perhaps the perpetual manifestation of her father’s selfless love and enduring wish that she live a good life, a life he couldn’t provide, moves her to pour her heart into them and everything she does.



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