By Sarrah Peters
Gadsden lost a great businesswoman and benefactor of charitable organizations last Friday (Apr. 1).
Mary Lee Hardin Willard was a staunch supporter of the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, named after her mother, the First United Methodist Church of Gadsden, the local Boys and Girls Club and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
Willard was currently the chairperson in charge of renovations at the First United Methodist Church of Gadsden.
Community leaders all agree that Willard was a community service-oriented person who greatly influenced Gadsden.
“The best way to describe Mary Lee was flamboyant and a generous philanthropist,” said Mandell Tillman, one of Willard’s classmates and friends. “She will be truly missed, not just by her friends, but by the community as a whole.”
The Hardin family was a huge contributor to the Hardin Center, which revitalized Gadsden’s downtown area. Willard carried on her mother’s legacy by serving on the Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation board of directors.
“Mary Lee championed her mother’s ideals of community service,” said Bobby Welch.
After Willard’s mother passed, she took on running the Hardin Company, which ran numerous Piggly Wigglys, a grocery chain that Willard’s mother brought to the area.
“Her mom was one of the early pioneers of women in business,” said Mark Condra. “Her daughters grew up in business. They helped carry on their mother’s legacy.”
“She was an outstanding business lady,” said Etowah County Probate Judge Bobby Junkins, who not only went to high school with Willard, but also served on several boards with her. “Mary Lee was a very thoughtful person, very helpful. She was always very supportive of me.”
“Her, her mom and her sister have always been really involved in Gadsden,” said Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton. “She will surely be missed. She was a really good person.”
“Willard’s leadership and commitment made the Hardin Center what it is today,” said State Representative Craig Ford. “Her loss will be felt throughout the community, but that is a testimony to how big a part of this community she was. I want to offer my condolences to her sister, Elisabeth, and husband Bill. Our thoughts and prayers are with them at this time.”
No matter what she was working to do, Welch says that Willard liked to “think big, go big and offer the very best.”
“She was witty, charming and reminded you of the movie star Bette Davis,” said Welch. “You couldn’t talk her into doing something she didn’t believe in, but if she believed in something she was all for it. She was a wonderful lady, a remarkable person.”
The memorial service for Willard will be held May 1 at the First United Methodist Church of Gadsden. Further details have yet to be announced.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to remember Willard’s generous spirit. Donations will be accepted for the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, the First United Methodist Church of Gadsden and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.