Going Back and Moving Forward In My Hometown
Mary Raum returned to her hometown of Palestine and now helps bring tourism.
Some say you can never go home again. But for these Upper East Side Texans, home is where the heart is. They left to pursue careers and passions, but have returned home to make a positive impact on their communities.
It’s a trend County Line has noticed as we report on happenings across the region – East Texas natives returning to their roots and becoming involved in civic activities and organizations to help their hometowns thrive. Here are four of their stories.
Marketing Historic Palestine
Mary Raum was a newborn in Ohio when her father traveled to Palestine to help his sister-in-law restore an old home. He loved the city so much, he packed up the family, including five-month-old Raum, and moved to Palestine in 1981.
Today, as Palestine’s tourism marketing manager, Raum is encouraging people to visit her historic hometown, which is only second to Galveston in the number of historic properties in the state.
Raum would pack up and move herself after graduating from high school to pursue her love of fashion. She moved to Los Angeles, working her way through the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. After graduating with highest honors in 2001, she worked for the Gap and May Co, Inc. L.A. She then moved to Dallas as a buyer for a jewelry store and later J.C. Penney Co., where, with a reputation as a problem solver, Raum was placed in a variety of lagging departments to help boost sales. In 2012 after she and her husband, Shane, had twins, they decided to ditch the two-hour-a-day big-city commute and move back to her hometown of 18,000.
Raum first got involved in the community as executive director of the United Way of East/Central Texas. In her first year, the organization exceeded its yearly fundraising goal, going from $87,000 to $115,000. While at the United Way, she started the Dogwood Children’s Literacy and Art Festival, an event where children from the community enjoy an afternoon with authors and illustrators to encourage reading and spark the imagination. She became volunteer operations director of the Curious Museum, a hands-on exhibit based on the world-famous Exploratorium in San Francisco that promotes creativity and innovation skills.
In February 2016, she began her current role as Palestine’s tourism marketing manager, combining her love of history, her marketing expertise and problem-solving skills together to “sell” the city of Palestine to visitors.
On a typical day, she is working to enhance the overall marketing strategy and customize it to special events, such as Christmas activities in Palestine, including the Polar Express Train RideTM. Or, she might be designing content for the annual Dogwood Trails festival in the spring or getting the word out about the beautiful Fall foliage in the area as people plan to get out of the big city. All of this is in addition to maintaining a standard of excellence through her staff at the Palestine Visitor Center who support efforts to create welcome bags and tours for groups visiting the city.
Raum likes personalizing each visit, whether providing a bus tour for a group interested in seeing architectural details or customizing a list of activities for guests attending a wedding ceremony at the Museum of East Texas Culture.
“We try to customize any special requests. It’s those little memories that make people want to come back,” she says.
Since Raum took the role, city hotel occupancy tax rates are on the rise. In the spring, rates were up as much as 28 percent. This fall, the city attracted more than 800 dogs and 2,300 people to the Master Nationals Retriever Club Championship. Raum worked with the city to loosen leash laws during the three weeks the AKC-registered dogs and their owners and handlers were in town for the competition, changing the tagline of the town’s Visit Palestine ad campaign – “Champagne Served, Boots Welcome” – to “Retrievers Welcome: We’re All About the Dogs.”
“We ‘welcome all’ as a community, but with each special event, we try to tailor the tagline for the event or season,” she explains. “I’m most excited about educating people on what we have to offer. It’s highly gratifying when people leave our visitors center and say, ‘I had no idea there is so much going on in town.’”
Promoting the Magic of Greenville
Like many of his peers, Kevin Banks left his hometown of Greenville for greener pastures after graduating from high school in 1978. But after a career with The Walt Disney Company, today he’s bringing a touch of magic to Greenville as tourism manager for the city and director of the Greenville Municipal Auditorium
After earning his business degree with a specialty in marketing from East Texas State University (now Texas A&M Commerce), Banks went to work for Sanger-Harris department store, joining its executive program while a student and moving from a part-time dock position to assistant store manager at one of the retail chain’s largest stores in Fort Worth.
But his career changed in 1989 when he decided to pursue a childhood dream of working for Walt Disney World. As part of park operations at Disney World in Florida, he served as attractions host of the Great Movie Ride at Disney Hollywood Studios. As a VIP tour guide, Banks hosted people from around the world, including President Jimmy Carter and his family and Julie Andrews and her daughter.
Banks later moved into the marketing arm of Disney, called Synergy, where he worked with all other divisions of the company on cross-promotional opportunities, including those with Walt Disney World and Disney Cruise Line. His last job was with Disney Theatrical Group in New York City.
After reaching his 25th anniversary with Disney, Banks decided to take early retirement.
“I loved New York, but I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life there. I had to decide: Do I move back to Orlando or home to Greenville? I felt I could have a bigger impact here,” he says.
For the past two years, he’s been adding Disney magic to his role with the city. As director of the Greenville Municipal Auditorium, Banks took the position during the middle of a fundraising campaign to help buy new seats for the auditorium, a 1,400-seat venue located in a beautiful art deco building built in 1939.
With his help, the team has raised almost half a million dollars to get new seats installed. At the same time, he found an opportunity to restore some of the original art deco interior that had vanished over the years. Today, the team is only $2,000 away from reaching its fundraising goal.
Besides hosting local dance recitals and high school band concerts, the auditorium features musical performances ranging from Broadway to big band to country. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra performs there three times a year.
When he’s not managing the auditorium, Banks is promoting Greenville.
“We’ve got an award-winning winery, a growing public art program, great boutique shopping and down-home restaurants.”
Banks has updated the town’s brochure, website and advertising, all with consistent messaging – something he learned at Disney.
His work is paying off. Information requests from potential visitors are on the rise, going from 800 requests a year to more than 2,000 this year. He’s tapped photography students at Texas A&M Commerce to help build a photo library and communications students to assist with social media to promote the city. He’s helped generate interest in the Downtown Strolls in Greenville, where downtown businesses work together to present an open house.
“I try to convey to our businesses some of the guest services’ success of Disney, where everything within their four walls speaks to people. It makes our downtown more inviting and people will remember us and come back.”
Expanding Cultural Opportunities in Winnsboro
Mary White left her hometown of Winnsboro for a successful 30-year biomedical career on the East Coast, never really expecting to live there again. But as the years passed and her children’s summers spent at their grandparents’ home became a cherished tradition, she began to think more about a return. Today, she’s making an impact on cultural opportunities for the community with her involvement at the Winnsboro Center for the Arts.
A biology major at Southern Methodist University, White received her master’s degree at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and a doctorate in immunology and medical microbiology at Stanford University School of Medicine. She married an SMU classmate, Brad Scharf, from Arlington, whom she met while attending an SMU summer math program for high school students. After spending three years in Germany, the couple settled in the Boston area, where White worked in biotech and her husband was an electrical engineer.
In 2002, White left her position as senior vice president of research for a small biotech company so that she would have more time to manage her aging father’s care and also to spend more time playing the piano. Music has always been a serious hobby for White, who is classically trained in piano; however, in recent years, she has spent more time learning to play jazz. She studied jazz at a community music school in Winchester, a suburb of Boston, where she later served on the board of the school, using her management skills honed in biotech to help the school grow.
“I realized the importance of the arts and how everyone needs that exposure. You don’t have to be a performer to benefit,” she says.
White and her husband purchased her parents’ home in the 1990s when her parents began to consider downsizing, and with that purchase came the decision to eventually return to Winnsboro.
“I’ve always been an adventurer, eager to experience new places, so I like to say that we headed west and just kept going until we eventually landed back in Winnsboro. Our kids would come to Texas every year and it was the highlight of their summer. They learned to drive on the property and fished in the pond. They didn’t want to see the house leave our family. It feels right for us to be here now.”
So when White moved to Winnsboro in 2014, she became active in the Winnsboro Center for the Arts, founded in 2001 to provide more cultural and artistic opportunities and to make them accessible to everyone.
“I came into the center just as major renovations were being completed.”
A new listening room was added – The Bowery Stage – which seats around 100 people and has now become the center’s “claim to fame,” hosting a popular series of intimate concerts each year. Renovations also included space for an art gallery and instruction as well as for a small gift shop.
“Everyone was very enthusiastic, but it seemed to me that they were unsure of how to move to the next step,” White says. “I felt like I had arrived at a good time in that my skill set and nonprofit experience might be useful in helping them to build their development program and add more structure to the organization. The arts community here is a wonderful group of dedicated people, and I really enjoy working with them.”
Today, as president of the board for the center, White is working to expand arts educational opportunities, especially for children. One of the center’s biggest successes is the summer drama camp where students write and perform a musical. A second drama camp was added this past summer and White hopes to add a third camp featuring arts and crafts or perhaps music next year.
“We also offer private lessons in guitar, keyboard, ukulele, and we’re looking for a children’s art instructor so we can add children’s art classes to the program in the future.”
Membership is expanding and White hopes to build grant opportunities for the center.
“Small towns really have a lot to offer,” she says. “Winnsboro is a Cultural Arts District and Winnsboro Center for the Arts is often referred to as the ‘heart of the arts in Winnsboro.’
“The community has a reputation of being at the forefront when it comes to cultural activities. We have so much going on with our concert series, an annual art and wine festival, nice restaurants, things for people to do on the weekends. It’s exciting to see my little hometown developing in such a way.”
Creating a Stronger Nacogdoches
Jerry Permenter grew up dirt poor on a red dirt farm 15 miles from the Nacogdoches city limits. The experience influenced Permenter to build a career in health care that today still has an impact on the oldest town in Texas.
As the youngest of eight children, Permenter remembers drawing water from a well. They had no running water or telephone. And, they couldn’t afford health care.
“We only went to the dentist when we needed to have a tooth pulled,” he recalls. “My sister had epilepsy with severe seizures, but we only sought care when something acute happened.”
So it’s no accident that Permenter devoted his life to ensuring adequate and accessible health care for all.
Today, Permenter is author of a forthcoming book to be published next year chronicling his experiences in East Texas. Red Dirt Boy is a compilation of stories, including one based on a young woman in an iron lung whom he passed every day on his bus ride to school.
“As a young boy, I had this heart of compassion for her, but didn’t know what to do to make it better,” he says. “Out of that, I started doing things to find a way to help people.”
When the AIDS epidemic hit East Texas in the 1980s, Permenter found his calling. At age 30, he was a student at Stephen F. Austin State University struggling to find his way after working a variety of jobs ranging from welding to TV commercials.
He founded the East Texas AIDS project and, within six months, was helping patients out of his home get critical treatment. Twice a week, he drove patients to the East Texas Medical Branch in Galveston – a 400-mile round trip – becoming an underground railroad of sorts for people with AIDS. He received his first grant from the Texas Department of Health to do breathing treatments for patients in his bedroom.
“I had no training as a respiratory therapist. I did it because no one else would do it.”
Permenter began receiving funding from other resources and soon his agency grew from his spare bedroom into a large organization serving the community. Over the years, he developed six health care projects of national significance and served on the board of the National AIDS Housing Coalition.
Today, he continues his work providing health care for the underrepresented in South Texas, recently opening the first Health Equity Clinic in San Antonio to provide health services for the LGBT community. The center also provides services for a cross-section of the community, including the elderly.
The organization he founded in Nacogdoches is today called Health Horizons of East Texas and continues to advocate for those affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as provides community health care services. Permenter recently toured the center’s new facility, which happens to be on the road to the house where he grew up.
“It’s a humbling experience. When you see a population go without health care, creating structural interventions in a community where people can go and receive health care is vital.”
Besides leaving a legacy of health care in Nacogdoches, Permenter is an avid promoter of the Garden Capital of Texas. He serves on the city’s planning committee for the annual Nine Flags Christmas Festival and the “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” parade produced by the Nacogdoches Area United Way.
“I want my grandchildren who live in Houston to have the East Texas experience and to walk the red brick streets I did as a boy.”
What does it mean to go back and help his hometown thrive?
“There are always opportunities to create a difference in your community. Bloom where you are planted. I made sure I did that. To me, giving back to where you are from is really vital for the success of every community.”