As NTA turns 70 this year, the Courier team has mined for association gold. We’re digging up the precious pieces of history that shine with accomplishment, from the creation of the first automated marketplace to seating women at the board table for the first time. We’re retelling those incredible stories to celebrate how NTA has paved the way for travel associations—and will continue to be innovators in the industry as we move into better, more prosperous times for travel.
Mary Lee may have been a quiet person, but it was a loud day in the boardroom when she was voted in as president. It was a day when glass ceilings were shattered.
Lee was the first female president—now the position of board chair—of NTA (then the National Tour Brokers Association) as well as the first woman to be president of any major travel organization in the U.S. It was 1971, when the winds of social change were blowing—not unlike the present—and women’s rights were at the forefront.
Mikie Wall, the third woman to sit in the president’s seat at NTA, said when she first came on the board, she recognized immediately who had the association’s best interests at heart. She admired people like John Stachnik, then a fellow board member, who pushed the group to analyze all aspects of something, to look at the big picture.
“I always respected people like that. They thought of what was good for the whole association, not just their company,” Wall said. “Mary Lee was so like that. She was a smart business woman. She had such a gentle and kind way about her, but she always spoke her mind.”
Wall said Lee was one of the first people she really got to know when she joined NTA. At the first convention Wall attended (when she hardly knew a soul), she gravitated towards Lee at both meetings and nighttime events.
“You find people who are like you,” she said. “I was lucky enough that I hung around Mary and Geneva (Doherty, the board’s executive secretary and Mary’s right-hand woman). They were an awesome team.”
Lee, also the leading lady of Mary Lee Tours in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, operated motorcoach tours with Doherty throughout the U.S. and Canada. She opened her own travel agency in 1944 after learning of her clients’ struggles with having to travel to Chicago or Pittsburgh to take a tour. She joined NTBA in 1962 and served in other executive committee positions before taking the reigns as president.
According to The Building of an Industry: The Official History of the National Tour Association, written by former NTBA president Lynn B. “Spike” Herzig, Lee’s first order of business as president was to solicit suggestions regarding the selection of full- or part-time help. It resulted in the hiring of past president Stanley Parker, who prepared press releases and president’s reports, brought on new members, and encouraged existing members to attend the annual convention. Lee also initiated the deployment of a newsletter on a monthly basis. An excerpt from the history book concerning the newsletter reads: “It was a combination of board meeting reports, general information, and requests for members to send in information which she assured them she would publish (and she did). This was really the first time that members had a complete and timely update on the direction of their association, and it was gratefully accepted. Letters of thanks began to pour into Mary’s office.”
Former NTA Executive Vice President Jim Host recounted his initial involvement with Lee. In 1973, NTBA was considering producing a film and asked Host to bid on the project, as he’d completed an award-winning film for the Lexington CVB.
“They asked me to show the evidence of a film I’d done on Henry Clay. Joe Casser was president, and Mary Lee was the president before (and a director then). They asked me to come to the executive meeting of the board, and they hired me to do a film for them,” Host said. “That was my first experience with Mary. In that meeting, I found (her) to be one of the nicest people I’d ever met. She was very soft spoken, but a person who commanded great respect from everyone in the room.”
Lee was instrumental in later appointing Host as the association’s executive director, and she remained on the board as a director until 1976. Host holds dear his memories of board meetings and sit-downs with her, talking in-depth about the early days of tour brokers and how they operated. He also recalls when she presented him with a plaque at Convention ’94 to commemorate his 20 years of service as executive vice president.
“She presented it along with several members of the association who were members when they hired me. She died shortly after that,” Host said. “She was highly respected among all the other tour brokers. I have great memories of this kind, wonderful woman, who was the first woman pioneer in the tour broker business.”
Mary Lee led the association for one history-defining year, lighting the way for the 10 women who later took on the role and left their mark.
To learn more about NTA's leadership, visit NTAonline.com for info on the current board of directors.
Top photo: NTBA leaders from the 1970s