Mary Starling retires from THA

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 27, 2001

Features Editor

After 29-plus years with the Troy Housing Authority, Mary Starling is stepping down.

The decision to walk away from a "calling" that has been such an important part of her life for so long was not an easy one for the executive director.

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"Many of the employees have been with Troy Housing Authority as long, or longer than I have," Starling said. "We are like family. The residents are like family; the people who are involved in the state association are like family. Leaving family is hard."

Starling said she has always enjoyed working with the people at THA and she is proud of the accomplishments that have been made over the years, but "now is a good time to let someone younger take over."

"I’ve worked for 46 years and I’m at retirement age," Starling said.

"My grandchildren are still young enough that I can do things with them and I really want to spend more time with them because they grow up so fast."

Twenty-nine and a half years ago, Starling learned of an opening at THA. She made an appointment with Joel Witherington, who was executive director of THA at that time. They talked and, on June 5, 1972, Starling was hired as cashier/bookkeeper.

She continually moved up the ladder filling several positions, including accountant, assistant director and nine years as executive director.

Starling has also served as president of the Alabama Housing Authority Association and chairperson of committees within the Southeast Regional Conference.

"I’ve loved every minute of it," she said. "I’ve learned a lot along the way about working with different people in all stages of life. The one thing, perhaps the most important thing, is that you don’t ever judge anyone unless you walk in their shoes. Things are not always as they seem on the surface."

Starling has seen her "family" grow over the years.

When she started at THA, there were 350 housing units. Today, there are 422 units with about 1,000 residents, making THA a very big family.

The mission of a housing authority is to provided safe, sanitary place to live for those in need.

"The housing authority was not designed to be a way of life," Starling said. "It’s goal is be a hand up for substandard housing until the residents can move out on their own. We have had residents who moved out into mobile homes and a few have moved into houses, but not as many as we would like. I believe they feel comfortable and safe here."

A drug-elimination grant made it possible for the THA to hire two police officers specifically for the 422 units.

"The policemen interact with the adults and the youth," she said. "They are visible and they are making a difference. With their presence in the housing complexes, we

have gone from a drive-by shootings to virtually no crime at THA."

Starling also attributes the reduction of crime and mischievous conduct to the THA Family Life Center.

"At the center, we have sports programs and tutorial programs for students who need help with schoolwork," she said. "We have had two students who won scholarships through Alabama Housing Authority Association. One student had a 4.0 GPA.

If we only help one child, then it has all been worthwhile."

Starling said the executive director of THA must wear many hats.

"You are a counselor, a minister, an accountant, a tutor, a friend," she said. "Many of the residents of THA have problems no one knows about. We offer financial planning and many of our residents just don’t consider that they have more money going out than they have coming in. We work with them on a financial plan that can make life smoother and better for them."

Starling said talking with the mothers to make them aware of the service offer at THA is very beneficial.

"We have paid fees so that residents of the THA can play recreation ball," Starling said.

"When there is a death or other crisis we try to be there for them and we offer the family life facility for family gatherings because the units are usually too small for a lot of people."

Being executive director of Troy Housing Authority is a 365 day a year, 24-7, kind of job.

"It is a job that, I believe, you are called to do," Starling said. "You have to be totally dedicated and you have to truly care about people and be able to look beyond what most people see. Retirement was not a decision I made overnight. It was a hard decision and I will miss the people and the relationships I have formed, but I am leaving it in good hands. Ken Vaughan, who has been assistant director, will be the new executive director and he is very capable."

Starling’s last day at Troy Housing Authority will be Dec. 31. She will start the new year off as a retired person and as a grandmother on-call and on ready 24-7.