Accidental Activist
Changing the World One Small Step at a Time
by Mary Allen Jolley
Publication June 2024!
Available for Preorder!
Available For Preorder!

Front cover, left to right: President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Benjamin Willis, Superintendent of City Schools, Chicago, IL; The Honorable Anthony Celebrezze, Secretary of U.S. Dept. of HEW; Dr. Chester Swanson, Professor of Education, UC Berkeley; Mary Allen Jolley. Rose Garden presentation of Vocational Education Report. Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston


ISBN 978-1-60489-381-6, Trade Paper, $19.95


“As the saying goes, many people frantically struggle for fame while a handful forget themselves into immortality. Mary Jolley never sought Alabama’s spotlight, but she was seldom beyond its refractive beam when matters of greatest importance were at stake. ACCIDENTAL ACTIVIST is a primer for all who wish to know what was best about the state’s history, politics, and society in the Twentieth Century.”

James Wayne Flynt University Professor Emeritus of History,
Auburn University, author of 13 books on the historical,
economic and social fabric of Alabama, including Poor But Proud:
Alabama’s Poor Whites; co-author of Alabama:
A History of a Deep South State,
both nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.






About the Author:

Mary Allen Jolley, born and raised in Sumter County, Alabama, spent a lifetime translating her optimism, intelligence, and hard work into programs that have helped millions of Americans make better lives for themselves and their families, both in Alabama and throughout the country.

On the national level, Jolley served as legislative assistant to Congressman Carl Elliott, D-AL, helping draft the National Defense Education Act of 1958. She later accepted an appointment by President Kennedy to staff the advisory panel on vocational education in the USA and help draft the Vocational Education Act of 1964, legislation that in each case opened the doors of education to people regardless of financial means, and helped bring women and minorities into the educational mainstream. Working in governmental affairs for the American Vocational Association, she helped bring together other organizations to jointly and effectively appeal to Congress for increased funding for education. These acts impacted higher education as much as the post-war G. I. Bill did.

Leaving Washington, Jolley first served as vice president for development at Trident Community College in Charleston, South Carolina, where among other successes, she established a program to increase the enrollment of women in technical programs leading to higher-paid careers. She was recruited home to The University of Alabama, where she served as director of economic development, and helped devise strategies to recruit major industry (JVC, Mercedes) to Alabama, at the same time working with communities throughout the state on local projects, and fostering the development of Family Resource Centers as a concrete step toward ending intergenerational poverty.

A person of boundless energy and absolute integrity, Mary Allen Jolley continued her work to help people make better lives through almost 30 years of retirement. In all she did, Jolley was an advocate for social justice, and in her last years she worked with others in Tuscaloosa toward an acknowledgement of its history, striving for racial reconciliation.

As beloved in her personal life as she was respected in her career, Mary’s joyous engagement in living has influenced generations of her family, friends, and co-workers to embrace her example and work to make the world a better place for everyone.








Excerpt from Book:

Why I finally wrote this book

“You get old and you realize that there are no answers:
there are just stories.”
Garrison Keillor
“Stories can change the world.”
Rick Bragg

In these later years of my life, some friends and colleagues have told me I should tell about my life and some things I helped to get accomplished. I’ve resisted doing that, but now, though I know my story is not going to change the world by itself, I’ve decided to tell it because it might help somebody else see that they can help change things for the better.

“No answers: just stories.” That statement by Keillor really struck a chord with me. I believe stories can help us live fuller, better lives. They can help us understand ourselves and other people, and they can lead us to stretch our imaginations and expand our aspirations. They can show us role models and horrible examples; they can help us to feel what is right, and to know what we want to stand up for. Stories are powerful teachers.

Rick Bragg’s “Last Lecture” at The University of Alabama was one such story for me. Rick is a former newspaperman, now teaching journalism at the University of Alabama. In the “Last Lecture” program professors say to their students what they would say if they knew it was the last lecture they were ever going to be able to give.

Rick told the story of being in New Orleans, working for the The New York Times. There had been a murder in the community, and he was tasked to find the mother and write a story about her feelings about what had happened to her son. He went to her home and as she opened the door to let him come in, he began to apologize to her. He explained that one of the hardest things a reporter has to do is have people relive these horrible experiences. He was saying how sorry he was to have to ask those questions and she interrupted him and said, “Don’t worry about it. If it ain’t written down, people forgets.”

That hit home, and stuck with him. Stories do have the power to change the world.

I didn’t start out wanting to make changes in the world. But as I come up on my hundredth year on this planet, I realize that a few key things that happened to me helped me see where change was needed and how I could be part of making it come about. So I invite you to listen to my story—and to know that you can be part of making the changes that you see need to happen.

Learning from my family and neighbors
I was born on August 30, 1928, and despite the Great Depression, my childhood was a happy one. I remember above all else that I always felt deeply loved by my parents, and safe and secure with them. Though I couldn’t have said it in these words at the time, I knew that they loved me unconditionally, even when I did wrong and was punished. I think it’s so important for children to have that feeling. I think it set me on the path that I have been on. When you’ve been freely given that, not made to feel that you have to earn your parents’ love, you want to give to others. In my 90+ years, I’ve seen the kinds of problems that people have to overcome to make a good life, and so many of those problems stem from not feeling loved by their parents. I know I was fortunate in this regard, and I hope you are, too. But: if you didn’t receive that love as a child—if you didn’t have parents who could instill confidence in you and show you how to treat yourself and other people with love and care—then I encourage you to look closely at the people in your larger world, and to learn from the example of those who do model courage and compassion. Maybe a relative, or a teacher, or a boss can be your role model. And if role models are thin on the ground, then learn what you can from the flawed examples in your life: if nothing else, you can see how NOT to behave, and make for a better path for yourself and your children—and anyone whose life you touch.

I also encourage you to learn as much as you can about the larger world in general. The wider your perspective, the more possibilities you can see. I was fortunate in that my mother, Henrietta Pearson, began seeing the world from a broader perspective when she was a girl. She instilled that openness to possibilities in me, though, as I’ll tell you later, sometimes she had to nudge me to take the next step.

Mama was born in Duncanville in Tuscaloosa County in 1891. When she was 12 years old, her mother died, leaving four girls and two boys to be raised by their father. At age 18, she left her home and came into Tuscaloosa to go to nursing school, and right after graduation, boarded a train to New York City to take a postgraduate course in obstetrical nursing at Columbia University Hospital. That completed, she returned to Alabama and went to work at the McAdory Infirmary in Birmingham. When World War I began, she volunteered as an Army nurse. After the war, she came to Tuscaloosa to work in what became Druid City Hospital, where she served as superintendent of nurses. The hospital included a residence for nurses where she lived as superintendent. When my mother visited the hospital’s construction site, the mason invited her to lay a couple of bricks in the foundation. She did, and years later showed them to me with affection and pride. As I write this, the residence still stands on the University of Alabama campus, and I always think of Mama when I pass by it.

After serving as superintendent, Henrietta decided to use her skills in a very different direction, and moved to Atlanta to care for individual patients in private duty nursing. She enjoyed the work and the city, but a visit to her sister in Ward, Alabama, led to a big change in her life. On that visit she met the man who would become my father, Charlie Neal Allen. It may have been love at first sight, but marriage was a serious commitment that she didn’t enter into lightly.

My father, a widower with three young children whose wife had died of breast cancer, was a farmer in South Sumter County, a land of rolling hills crisscrossed by clay roads and kudzu. After two years of long-distance courtship by mail and occasional visits, my parents wed in 1925 and Henrietta came to live on the 300-acre farm with Charlie and his children: Ruth, Willard, and Charles, aged 6 to 12. In l927 my brother Walter was born, and I followed him eighteen months later. Within a year of my arrival, the Great Depression got underway with the crash of the stock market in l929.

The world I was born into
Our family of seven lived in a two-story home, without electricity, refrigeration, a central water system, or indoor plumbing. In rural Alabama our home was not all that unusual—most families lived in houses with the same lack of amenities. Only with the fruition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the early 1940s did we get electricity.

Our home was flanked by outbuildings, each with a different function—a barn for our milk cows, horses, and hogs; coops for young chickens and laying hens; a smoke house to cure and preserve meat; a storehouse for feed and seed; and sheds for farming equipment and for an automobile. My Father also had a blacksmith’s shop for sharpening plows and shoeing horses. A covered well provided a water supply for our barn, and our screened back porch held the second well for water used in the house. Near the well at our barn was a black iron pot and several washtubs where we laundered our clothes and linens. At hog-killing time (the coldest part of the winter), we used the pot to render lard, and in the fall for cooking lye soap and making hominy of shelled corn. An extensive vegetable garden; an orchard of apple, peach, and pear trees; a scuppernong arbor; two large pecan trees; two fig trees; and two huge oaks filled out the landscape surrounding our home.

At the back of the house stood a big stack of wood split for our kitchen stove, as well as logs for the fireplaces we used in winter to heat our home. One of my earliest chores was to bring in the stovewood every evening for cooking our food. As a small child, I could stack 10 to 12 pieces of wood into my arms to deposit in the wood bin in our kitchen. I was proud of being part of the work of the household: it gave me confidence that what I did mattered.

I also had the benefit of being part of a multi-generational household. When my Grandfather Allen passed away in l930, my Grandmother Allen made her home with us for most of the year, but she would stay with each of her other four children for extended visits. I greatly admired her, for she always had time for me, especially to talk about growing up and helping me learn about our Allen relatives, present and past. She gave me a great sense of family, and she was also an example of strong religious faith and practice. I can still picture her after breakfast going to her room where for an hour or more she would read the Bible. We understood this to be her sacred space and would not intrude. I carried into my later life the importance of having some time every day, however brief, for prayer and reflection.