(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
You need to watch your checkbook around Mary Anne Dickson ’63. Even then, you’ll likely part with money you hadn’t realized you wanted to spend.
A member of the Carolina First steering committee and co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Council, Mary Anne is one of the top fundraisers for Carolina. When she learned that a fellow Carolina First committee member had, for years, been unable to get the alumna who was head of a large foundation to call him back, Mary Anne said, “I’ll take on that challenge.” She got the alumna on the phone the next day and had a million-dollar pledge before she hung up.
Lanier Brown May, one of the regional development officers who works with Mary Anne on the Women’s Leadership Council, observed: “Mary Anne is so personable and kind to people, but she has this way about her that she gets what she wants.”
What she wanted, from the time she was a little girl, was to go to Carolina. Her parents would bring her and her sister, Martha O’Neal Johnson ’76, from their home in Elkin to football games at Kenan Stadium. As Mary Anne put it, “I grew up loving Chapel Hill.”
But she also loved to leave it. Her parents instilled in their children a love of travel. Mary Anne’s first trip out of the country was as a college student, joining Professor Clifford Lyons and his wife, Gladys, who would lead 30 students on a trip to Europe every year. Mary Anne called that her “awakening,” and it whetted her appetite to travel more.
Both Mary Anne and her sister are avid international travelers, and after their father died they decided that funding an international travel scholarship would be the best way to honor his memory. Every year, the Charles Garland Johnson Sr. Scholars Fund in International Studies allows seven students who would not otherwise be able to afford to study abroad the opportunity to travel and study outside the United States.
Although the scholarship was one way that she could give back to others, Mary Anne found that she gained much from the conversations and correspondence with scholarship recipients.
Mary Anne’s career began close to home. After graduating from Carolina in 1963 with a degree in political science, she attended the Katharine Gibbs School for private post-secondary education. She moved to Rocky Mount where she served as the assistant to the chairman and CEO of Hardee’s Food Systems and raised her son, Chris, and her daughter, Chase. In 1984, she received a degree in business administration from North Carolina Wesleyan.
Mary Anne’s resume grew with every board of directors she served and every committee she chaired, much of it done during an era in which men held the leadership positions and women followed orders, quietly doing the hands-on work.
Yet no one who knows her would call Mary Anne pushy. Jean Kitchin ’70, chair of the GAA Board of Directors, said: “Mary Anne is very organized and very precise. People always knew that when you gave a task to Mary Anne, you could cross it off your list and never have to follow up on anything.”
Over the years, Mary Anne has served on the UNC Board of Visitors and was its chair in 1998-99. She has given generously to women’s studies, the Chancellor’s University Unrestricted Fund, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. In 2003, Mary Anne received the William Richardson Davie Award from the Board of Trustees. She plans to establish a mentoring program for UNC seniors and hopes to continue her work with the Women’s Leadership Council even after the Carolina First campaign ends.
Known for her ability to make everybody in a room feel special, Mary Anne has as much energy as she does charm. She is not one to delegate and walk away; she’ll be working right alongside you, chatting about what’s important to you. And when she runs into you again, maybe years later, she’ll remember the details, said Lanier Brown May. “She makes everybody her friend; she has thousands of friends,” Lanier said.
And in time, she’ll probably get a donation out of every one of them.
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. A list of previous award recipients is available online.
This year’s recipients are Max Chapman ’66 of Scarborough, N.Y., chair of the UNC Endowment Fund; Mary Anne Dickson ’63 of Charlotte, co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Council; Carl Matheson ’57 of Hickory, a past chair of the GAA Board of Directors; and C.D. Spangler ’54 of Charlotte, former president of the UNC System.