With her petite frame, radiant smile and contagiously positive attitude, most wouldn’t know that MaryLee Davis has fought for her family, for her dream career and for her life. With so much pep and positivity packed into such a small package it’s no wonder Davis has always strived to do more, be more and change the world.
“When I was a little girl I always knew I was going to go to college, but what I had to figure out was what I was going to do. My mother told me that I needed to find my place in helping to change the world,” Davis said. “I always thought I may want to be a teacher. I had always admired my teachers and many of my aunts were teachers, but I wanted to do more and I struggled with that. At (the) University of Tennessee I was in student government and I loved it and I decided I wanted to help students learn and engage with the community.”
Davis pursued this path when she came to Michigan State University (MSU), taking an internship in the executive vice president’s office. Being in such a stimulating and inspiring atmosphere confirmed to Davis that she could find a way to do what she loved.
“My dissertation was on how public universities should connect to the community and what kind of role that legislators thought the university should be doing in public service. When I was doing an internship in Washington, D.C. I met a graduate of MSU who said ‘Well, if you want to connect university with politics with public services with legislative work there is only one person at MSU for you to work with and that is Jack Breslin.’ Well, Jack Breslin became a member of my dissertation committee and while I was pursuing other jobs outside of Michigan he was creating a job that he and the president at the time would offer me.” Davis said with a smile.
The position offered to Davis was a joint appointment where she would be an assistant professor as well as a special assistant to the executive vice president. This new role was greatly celebrated as an accomplishment among women across the nation. Davis was the first woman in Michigan, the Big Ten and the nation to have responsibilities that included direct affiliation with the legislative appropriations process.
“I remember a mentor of mine on campus who told me she was happy for me but wanted to know how I felt about being the token woman in that area. I didn’t know what token meant so I immediately went to the dictionary and looked up the meaning. According to Webster, token means a partial fulfillment of a commitment,” said Davis. “I took it as a compliment, I was flattered because that meant that I was only one woman now but that there would be more women in these roles with other universities someday.”
As a standout female in her field it was not long before Davis was recognized for her dedication and commitment to her career and community. Davis was awarded the Lansing area’s very first Athena Award, an award that is presented to a candidate who has displayed professional excellence, community service and has actively assisted women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills.
However, because of a tragic auto accident Davis was unaware that she had even received the award as she was being nursed back to life at Sparrow Hospital.
“I was not aware of the background when I received it, nor was I aware of receiving it due to the circumstances surrounding it. I was in Sparrow, affectionately known as my three-month residency, recuperating from a severe accident. The evening following the event Jack Breslin came to Sparrow with the award and came in my room saying ‘You’re the woman of the year!” Davis said. “I had a head injury so I was trying to understand, but he told me about the dinner and the award that he had accepted on my behalf. My involvement with the award was not as direct as other recipients, but I am still so thankful to have been honored like that.”
The news of the award and all those who supported her was inspiring to Davis, who had a long path to full recovery from severe injuries sustained during the accident. Even when barely able to move from her hospital bed Davis found strength and motivation in staying positive and thinking of her mother who always taught Davis to be strong in the face of adversity.
“I am an only child and my father passed a year after I received my position at MSU and I knew I was the only one to take care of my mother. While recovering I would ponder what the physicians would tell me about my ability to walk or return to my job. I focused on the fact that, of course, they give you the worst case scenario, but that I believed myself and my mother always said to me to be strong and Girl Scouts taught me to be strong and resilient,” Davis said. “The struggle of relearning things taught me that if you keep believing in yourself and you get as much information as you can to help guide you and you allow other people to help you and come and assist you, you can move mountains.”
Davis doesn’t like to look back to that time in her life, but she does use it as a mile marker on her life’s journey. Another life-changing moment Davis does like to use to measure just how far she’s come is her marriage to Mark Granello, who she refers to as her soul mate.
“My husband is my rock,” Davis said. “A friend of mine introduced me to him because I was in a position for the first time where I needed to manage my own technology and had no idea where to start, so Mark tutored me. We became good friends and then best friends and we were married in 2005. I thank God for him every day.”
But more than just her husband, Davis is grateful for all the people who supported her and shared her vision. The people who stood by her during her recovery and those who have helped her find a way as challenges threatened to derail her.
“I would just thank God, my parents and Jack Breslin. They really guided me in life. I also would like to thank Francis Hesselbein, and each of the last seven MSU presidents who I have had the wonderful opportunity to work with while I have been at MSU. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” Davis said.
Davis doesn’t know exactly what is next for her, but she doesn’t seem to mind because in her opinion it doesn’t matter as much where you go next as it does that you remember where you came from.
“My life was surrounded as a little girl with wonderful parents, a mother who was my Girl Scout leader and a father that was involved in the community. I wanted to be part of my community as they were.”
And she does just that. Davis is active in promoting women’s rights and standing up for what she believes in. She supports all those around her and aims to better her community and the future of women with her work. In her own way, Davis is in fact changing the world.
“I think it is important to think big! I think it is important that women mentor other women, that they make time for themselves and they should pursue their dreams. We need to remember to let people help us, so that we can help others.”