Folk center employee shares love of history, music

By Angela Spencer Published July 13, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Mary Gillihan has worked as an interpreter at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View for 40 years.

Soon after the Ozark Folk Center opened in 1973, a young woman from east-central Illinois who fell in love with Mountain View through her travels around the country was offered a job in the center’s gift shop. Forty years later, Mary Gillihan is a staple at the park, taking care of the Shannon Cabin, running day camps and working as a park interpreter.

Gillihan grew up in the small farm community of Charleston, Illinois, where she said she had a lot of freedom as a small child.

“It was a great small town,” she said. “We could ride our bicycles everywhere. We could hang out in the city park late into the evening. We spent a lot of time at the swimming pool, where I later became a lifeguard. My folks just let us ride our bikes over to the pool. There was never really a danger we knew of.”

Charleston was also home to a small college, and Gillihan said the local college campus provided access to a variety of experiences. She would attend dress rehearsals for the college’s plays and musicals, took gymnastics classes and watched synchronized-swimming practices.

“It was nice being in a small town with a small-town college,” Gillihan said.

After high school, Gillihan traveled around the country with a friend, and in 1973, they decided to make their way to Arkansas after reading about the new Ozark Folk Center in Parade Magazine.

“For Illinois people, the Ozarks were Table Rock Lake in Missouri, but she said, ‘Let’s go into these Ozarks in Arkansas. They’ve got a river there, so we can canoe the Buffalo. We can go and visit this folk-center thing and camp in the Ozark National Forest,’” Gillihan said. “And that’s how I found Mountain View.”

Gillihan said she first realized the Mountain View area was unlike any other place she had been when she crossed over the White River from Izard County into Stone County and encountered a sign that stated “Honk for Ferry.”

“I thought, ‘This is definitely a different part of the country,’” she said. “That was back when they had the old ferry crossing. Sure enough, if the ferry wasn’t on your side, you just honked your horn, and on they came. That was my first real view of the White River.”

Mountain View was a small town like Gillihan was used to, and the people were nice and accommodating. She said she liked that older people and younger people got along and that the elderly were respected by others in the town.

The Ozark Folk Center was also an enticing aspect of the town, and Gillihan said she liked the attitude people had about making things and being sustainable within the center.

After the visit, Gillihan went back home and gave her two-week notice at the flower shop where she was working as a delivery girl. She and her friend moved to Mountain View, and Gillihan immediately applied for jobs at the folk center. While she waited for a job at the center to come through, she had several jobs to support herself, including taking care of a local family’s two young children, cleaning houses and baby-sitting, as well as holding a secretarial job at Stone County Electronics.

One Friday, someone from the center called and asked if she could start work on Monday. She talked with her bosses at Stone County Electronics, and they said she should jump on the opportunity. The folk center had not been open for long, and Gillihan thought it would be great to get involved in the beginning of the center’s operation.

Gillihan started working in the gift shop in 1974, selling merchandise and tickets and giving park orientations. In 1975, she developed a children’s program for the one-room schoolhouse and developed a Youth Week tour, and in 1988, she took her current position as park interpreter, which involves informing visitors of the natural, historic and cultural resources of the park.

“They knew I’d already been working with young people,” Gillihan said. “When it came time to start that interpreter program, our field interpreter out of the central office, who had worked with me, came and asked if I would consider being a seasonal interpreter. At that time, [the park system] accepted experience in the field. I did not have a degree in parks and recreation like most of our interpreters do now.”

The display of Gillihan’s talents does not stop with her programs and youth-centered activities. Music is another major facet of the Ozark Folk Center, and Gillihan initially auditioned as a solo performer in the park. In 1975, she went on a 10-day tour with some of the folk center musicians to Chicago.

“Ten days was a long, hard go. It’s a good thing we were young,” she said. “It was 30 minutes on, 30 minutes off all day long with an hour for lunch. We started at 9 in the morning and ended at 5 in the afternoon, but we had a great time.”

On that tour, she sang with a man named Robert Gillihan. The tour led to a friendship, and now the two are married and still perform together with Dave Smith in a band called Harmony.

“The Ozark Folk Center has allowed me to pursue music,” she said. “I never thought I’d be able to make music part of my career, but I have.”

Gillihan has the longest tenure of any Ozark Folk Center employee, and she said that in her time working there, she has learned how to be patient with young people and how to enjoy being in a leadership role. Now, training sessions for interpreters from state parks across Arkansas employ lessons that Gillihan has developed.

“Inclusive language is always something I strive for,” she said. “I’ve given lots of talks on it, and they’ve adopted some of that.”

Looking into the future, Gillihan said, she looks forward to training someone to take her place when it is time for her to step back.

“Some people look forward to retirement,” she said. “What I look forward to is mentoring someone to be able to take over my various positions. I’ve got several teenage helpers in several of my jobs. I always encourage them to come back so they can take my job. I would love to have programs that I began continue. They don’t have to be exactly like I want them to be, because I do like working with someone more than someone working for me.”

When the day comes for Gillihan to hand over the reins to one of her mentees, Gillihan said, she will possibly work a little less and fish a little more, which is something she will enjoy.

Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or

Zoned Editions Staff Writer Angela Spencer can be reached at 501-244-4307 or

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