Girl Power Part 3: Mary Wilson, The Game Changer

Mar 16, 2020

Despite the advancements delivered by Title IX legislation over the last 50 years, girls still participate in sports less than boys, and the disparity widens with the pressures of adulthood. Why does it matter? Because kids who compete do better in school, at work and throughout life. So WBFO's Marian Hetherly took a look at leveling the playing field in a series she's calling "Girl Power."

This week we talk with Mary Wilson, wife of the late Buffalo Bills founder and owner Ralph Wilson. Now life trustee of his $1.2 billion namesake foundation, she's admired for overseeing how her husband's final act of generosity is carried out across the two regions they called home: Southeast Michigan and Western New York.

"Well, I love Buffalo and Western New York. That's really my love. The whole program is wonderful, it's incredible, it's right up my alley. It was lucky I met Ralph, in that I'm a part of his giving back," Wilson told WBFO.

In doing so, she is also building her own legacy.

Mary and Ralph Wilson were married from 1999-2014.
Credit Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation

"I feel like we're just helping people, who are already doing great work, continue and do even greater work. I look forward to seeing the progress of Buffalo and Western New York. There've been so many changes already, you know. Ralph's foundation came along at a time when there was momentum. We're adding to it," she said.

A main focus of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation is youth sports and recreation. In 2018, the foundation partnered with the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo to launch Project Play, which helps kids become and stay physically active through sports.

Especially dear to Mary Wilson is a program she began in 2006. Each year she hosts more than 200 girls aged 9-12 at the Buffalo Bills Fieldhouse. Her WNY Girls In Sports program is an all-day opportunity for young girls to try and learn a variety of sports.

"Also what they experience is they get to be taught by athletes that are excelling at their sport, like the UB basketball team or sports clubs, and some of these girls are even taught by a 12 year old. If you can get a 12 year old teaching a 12 year old about a volleyball skill, that is powerful, because they're their peer. And so they have that connection and hopefully it makes a small impact," she said.

The research shows that, particularly before age 12, kids benefit from playing a variety of sports as part of a healthy lifestyle. Wilson's personal passion reflects how she remembers growing up in Ft. Worth, TX.

Mary Wilson (center) and some of her WNY Girls In Sports participants.
Credit Buffalo Bills

"It was my own love of being out of doors and competing. It was fun and I loved being on a team. I tried to compete on different levels and if we didn't win, I was very upset. We would play for a gold star and, as a matter of fact, I still have a sheet of all those gold stars," she said.

Wilson played neighborhood football, basketball, volleyball, track and field, archery, but had the most success in tennis. She started playing tennis at age 13, but in the 1960s, there were few opportunities to keep competing after high school.

"That was before Title IX. You know, nobody was looking to bring me to their college to be on a team. So it was a lost opportunity. It's so wonderful that Title IX came along - what, in 1973 - and has changed that landscape. And so, for a person who did spend a lot of time on the tennis court, that opportunity wasn't there. That would have been great to have," she said.

Mary Wilson (in white cap) continues to teach tennis during her annual WNY Girls in Sports program.
Credit Buffalo Bills

Even so, Wilson continued playing, teaching, then coaching tennis. Over an illustrious career, she won Coach of the Year and state, international and senior championships. At 60 years old, she ranked #1 for her age group. She even played Wimbledon.

"I'm definitely for women's choice and women having power over their lives. I'm more for the individual. I just always went on my own path. I certainly try to encourage and, you know, try to be the best you can be, but also accept when you're not the best you can be. I sort of went my own way. You know, I didn't get married until late. I enjoyed playing tennis, teaching, running different programs. So it was hard to corral me, because I didn't meet the man of my life.

"Girls in sports is important. The ability to compete, the ability to win and lose, the ability to work with others on the playing field and to listen and learn a skill. Those translate into leadership qualities. Or the ability to be a follower. You can't just be a leader. Be a team person. Be an important person of a team.

"And that could be in the business world, it could be in the courtroom, wherever it is. Many women have benefited from playing in sports. And it's important, I think, to lose gracefully, to accept losing. None of us is perfect. There's a lot of pressure in the world and living up to whatever and being the best you can be. But, you know, you've got to just sometimes sit back and go, 'Okay, okay. It's okay.'"

Mary Wilson (front right) with her Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation trustees.
Credit Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation

"If you look at women that are in powerful positions in the business world, many of them played sports. It's hard for me to understand how girls are not playing. I think physical education has taken a backseat. There's so much competition now, you know, with your iPhone, your iPad, your buddies, you're hanging out with your buddies, social media, trying to fit in. We have to make it desirable to be out there playing on a team. It's important to keep it part of the curriculum. And to all kids who want to be included, play, get on a team," she said.

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation has a mandated 20-year spend down, adding urgency and collaboration to its mission. So WBFO asked Mary Wilson, how different will Western New York look at the end of those 20 years?

"Well, first of all, the park is going to be incredible. So that is going to be fun to see in 2024, Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park. I think that is going to be a game changer in certain ways for the communities around there. I think it's going to be more accessible. It's going to be a gathering place and a coming together of different communities, different ethnic backgrounds, and I look forward to seeing that. The park is going to create an opportunity to enjoy this iconic park, a world-class park for everyone. That's a good example of how we think: bringing the community together and forward together."

WBFO also asked Mary Wilson what might we not know about her that she would like to share?

Mary Wilson in October 2019, announcing another $18 million to re-imagine Buffalo's LaSalle Park as Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park.
Credit Office of the Governor

"You know, it's sometimes a lot of stress being a part of all of this. Probably I come across very self confident, but that isn't necessarily true. You know, you have to work at it and draw strength from other people at times. I get a lot of encouragement from a lot of the people in Buffalo and that really helps. Some of the letters I get really encourages me to to give it my best shot. And I hope it's good enough.

"Getting out and exercising really helps me deal with a lot of this. So when the stress is there, I get out there, go hit golf balls. I come back and I'm fresh, and my mind is fresh. That applies to school. You're in the classroom, all day long, and your stress builds up. You're trying to fit in, you're trying to do great. Now, if you don't have a way to get away from that, to have relief from that. It's easier when you get away from it. Participate, exercise. Whether it's a walk or a run or get on your bike. Sometimes early in the morning, I'll get on my bike, just to clear my mind, and then I can attack what I need to. That's so important. And to take that out of education, that's just backwards. I understand the value of getting out of myself and exercise.

"And, of course, I miss Ralph a lot. So many good things are happening there and Ralph can be a part of that. Just think of what he's done there, what he brought there," she said.

And what Mary Wilson is doing for us.

"Thank you," she said.

NOTE: The next WNY Girls in Sports program scheduled for March 21 at the Buffalo Bills Fieldhouse has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.