Coffee with Mary Downs: A conversation with MSUM’s First Lady

Mary Downs grew up in a multigeneration home because, as she unabashedly shares, “We were poor and shared a house with my grandparents. I shared a room with my great-grandma. It may not have been a joy for my parents to live like that, but as a kid, having my grandparents and great-grandma around meant somebody was always there.”

Her courageous and hardworking Grandma Blake was Rosie the Riveter, working for McDonnell Douglas. “She was so small she could get in the nose of a plane, and they sent her in there to do the wiring and check the rivets,” Mary recalls. “She was my hero. She wouldn’t tolerate crying or whining. If things didn’t go your way, her attitude was to pick yourself up, learn from it, and move on.”

Her Great Grandma Lee was a phenomenal cook; a seamstress who made all her clothes when she was a child; and a caretaker of the entire neighborhood. Both grandmothers and her Grandpa Blake were dynamic role models. “Grandpa Blake is responsible for making sure there was laughter in the home,” Mary said.

Moving on, moving up

With that familial inspiration and ‘can do’ attitude, Mary embarked on a male-dominated career path determined to break as many glass ceilings as possible and climb the corporate ladder to success. And she did. Armed with a microbiology/biochemistry degree and graduate management training, she was a highly successful sales professional with an innate talent for building relationships and driving results. She worked primarily in the pharmaceutical industry breaking sales records and in the medical products industry with physician inventors bringing new medical products to market.

Her career was catapulting, just like her husband’s. But soon after Tim Downs proposed, he told her he wanted to be a university president someday. He had been a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and had just gotten a taste of university administration.

“He was passionate about learning and helping people achieve their goals, not just students but faculty, and making the most of the university. He wanted to be an integral part of that. He is a natural leader and a great guy,” Mary said. “My career goals were more selfishly motivated. I compared that to Tim’s passion for helping others and knew I wanted to be a part of it.”

So, she sacrificed the C-suite to support Tim’s presidential aspirations. They moved to universities across the country, where Tim advanced professionally. He was president/CEO of Northern State University, Aberdeen, S.D., from June 2016 to June 2021. She has experience as a First Lady. However, she’s taking her time figuring out her role as MSUM’s First Lady. Even though she was familiar with MSU Moorhead and the community, she has lots to learn.

“I want to be an asset wherever I’m involved, but without knowing the opportunities, it’s hard to say exactly what I will do,” Mary said. “I find it fulfilling to be a part of planning, organizing, and doing. I’ve been the person who’s helped kids take stuff up to their dorms, stood at the door and helped with tickets, or been on the planning committee for big events.”

She clearly wants to connect with people and has found that to be easy at MSUM and in the Moorhead-Fargo community. “This is honestly the friendliest place we’ve ever moved to. And it’s not just people saying hello. It’s people taking the time to genuinely look you in the eye and start a conversation or say thank you.”

Beyond Dragon friendliness, she shares other reasons she and Tim chose MSU Moorhead. They were already familiar with MSUM because Northern State was in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. “We know people from Fargo, and they can’t say enough good things about Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo,” she said.

In addition to the size of the community, they were also attracted to a campus that is small enough where everyone knows your name. To that end, President Downs keeps a pair of Dragon red tennis shoes in his office closet. When he has time, he puts them on and takes a walk. “He wants to feel the campus the way students feel it. He wants to see the classrooms and the offices, and he wants to be involved and hands-on,” Mary said.

Other factors in their decision to choose Moorhead include the impressive and beautiful campus, the friendly and enthusiastic students who refer to MSUM as “their campus, their place,” and the state of Minnesota’s essential support of higher education. She says that’s “important because if the state doesn’t care, then that trickles down and the students are the ones who end up losing.”

As she figures out her role as MSUM’s First Lady, she says she’ll show up wherever and however she can. Mary also shared a few insights about MSUM’s new president.

“Tim has the best sense of humor. And he’s willing, within décorum, to make fun of himself, too. It’s important you don't take yourself too seriously,” she said. “He’s also a good athlete and surfer. And it’s my fault he no longer rides motorcycles.”

What you may not know about Mary

Mary is a cancer survivor. She’s had two craniotomies and radiation to her head, but she’s quick to say the experience does not define her.

“I was lucky. Having a rare tumor got me the best doctors and care at Mayo Clinic. I had zero anxiety going through the whole thing.” However, her brain health is a constant battle. “I forget weird stuff. I remember the Seventies. I can say every lyric from every Partridge Family song, but sometimes I’ll forget someone’s name or get verbally lost in a sentence and need to be brought back. It’s not that I’m not interested. It’s simply physical.”

Mary is fun-loving and sociable; she loves hosting a good party. And she loves cooking. The treatment caused her to lose her sense of smell, so she misses discerning taste and smell while cooking. “Now I follow recipes,” she said. “I remember some things I used to do out of habit, but Tim is my taste tester now. I still love cooking, but now Ina Garten and Bobby Flay help me out.”

About a year ago, Mary visited Rhode Island, culminating in visits to all 50 states. Next up: see the remaining national parks on her list.

Would you rather…?

Coffee or tea? Coffee!

Coke or Pepsi? Neither, I don’t do soda.

Beer or wine? Wine.

Baseball or football? Baseball if you’re playing. Football if you’re watching.

History or poetry? History.

A basketball game or a play? Right down the middle. They’re so different and you get great things out of both. It would be tough to pick. Sometimes, when there’s been a play at the same time as a basketball game, Tim and I will split our time. But he always wants to be there at the end of a game, so I would generally do the play’s second half.

Biography or fiction? Fiction.

Documentary or drama? Drama because I like historical fiction. If it’s historically accurate and there’s a good story to go with it, that would be my first choice.

Fundraiser or professor? Professor. Being a professor would be ideal because you can get to know your students. I see where Tim gets that passion.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, a book or Netflix? I'll be reading while the TV is on.

Rock ‘n’ roll, classical or country? Rock ‘n’ roll.

Barbie or Oppenheimer? Oppenheimer. But Barbie has piqued my interest because of the reviews.

We look forward to seeing Mary Downs around campus and in the community as she grows into her role at MSUM’s First Lady.

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