The term “sense of place” can denote one’s space in an environment, culture, or community, among other usages. None of those registered with Mara Williams when she was first asked to be the director of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center almost 20 years ago, however. For her, it only meant time.
“I came up fully intending to put in my five years, make my reputation and leave,” she says blithely. “I had no idea when I was dragged out of New York City kicking and screaming to take this job how perfect it was going to be for me.”
Indeed, Mara’s doctoral courses at NYU emphasized the aesthetics and critique of contemporary and visual arts, both of which she came to realize have a very strong presence in the region. Her five-year plan turned into nine, as other opportunities that came along didn’t seem as desirable. Finally, she decided to resign from the museum and spend a year in Europe before setting off to find her next career challenge.
All of this was in motion when she walked into the U.S. Post Office in Brattleboro one day and encountered Judge James L. Oakes, whose late wife had been a museum trustee. They exchanged pleasantries, which led to a phone call by Judge Oakes a few days later asking if he could take Mara out for dinner.
“I said sure, thinking that the ‘Deede Oakes Memorial Wing’ was in the offing. I was shocked when I found out this was a date date,” Mara recollects, and admits she fell in love with him quickly, but was still determined to follow through on her plans to spend a year in Europe.
Jim called her every night for the first six weeks she was away. Finally, he flew to Scotland and tracked Mara down on Loch Fyne, presenting her with an engagement ring and a proposal. They were married a few months later, on New Year’s Day, and spent almost a decade together before Jim passed away in October 2007, at the age of 83.
Mara continues to live in their 210-year-old farmhouse with two very protective standard poodles. Her work with ArtsBridge, LLC, a curatorial and exhibition development consulting agency she co-founded, offers ample opportunity for travel, but she says she is ensconced in the Brattleboro community, as attested to by her planned gift to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in the name of The Honorable James L. Oakes and Mara Williams Oakes.
“Brattleboro is my hometown now thanks to the museum and to my husband. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be making this gift,” says Mara. Her recognition of the value of community hospitals comes from her mother, who served as the director of community affairs at Cape Cod Hospital for over 20 years.
“Public health, emergency medical services, birthing babies—these services all need to take place in the context of your community and they are your first line of health defense,” she explains. “You have to have them at your community hospital and they have to be staffed properly. Emergency rooms have to run 24/7, 365 days a year even if no one goes in. And they have to be ready for disasters.”
Mara has also lent her fundraising expertise to the hospital by serving on the Development Committee, and as a major contributor to fundraising campaigns when she served as president of Brattleboro’s Rotary Club. “I was recruited by Bob Gannett to serve. Bob always pointed out, ‘the more people give money, the more they understand that they have the capacity to give.’ And he’s right. They may not be able to make a gift every year or they may spin a more substantial gift out over time, but people do come to understand that they have that capacity to give.”