Mary Hudson is determined to make the most out of her retirement.
Whether it's riding her horse, volunteering on the Kalmar Nyckel or working with power tools on the latest project around the house, Hudson is always on the go.
“My mom always said to get up and do something,” Hudson said. “Even if it's wrong, get up and do something.”
Since retiring as a counselor at Sussex Correctional Institution in 2010, that's just what Hudson has been doing. Six days a week she can be found riding her purebred Arabian horse MP Shira Bey at Karen Kershaw's farm just a few miles from her Milton home. Much of the rest of her time is dedicated to volunteer work with the Kalmar Nyckel.
Since answering an ad in the paper in January, Hudson has volunteered 332 total hours with the organization.
“I'm just having a ball,” she said.
She was required to take a class every Saturday for 12 weeks and volunteer 40 hours before she could become a crew member on the tall ship. She quickly surpassed the requirements and often joins the ship on cruises out of the port in Wilmington or at the ferry terminal in Lewes. Like all crew members, she's trained and certified by the Coast Guard and is well versed in fire safety and man-overboard and abandon-ship drills. She's also been approved to climb the shrouds to the rigging about 40 feet above the deck to help furl the sails.
When the ship is at port in Wilmington, Hudson often spends the day working in the blacksmith shop.
“They have this shipyard where they have various stations,” she said. “They'll bring a couple busloads of kids, and they'll divide them in half, so one half will get on the ship and have lessons on the ship about the ropes or the sails or how to steer and navigate and the other half is on land going through various stations.”
She is documenting her time with the Kalmar Nyckel in a memoir, which is already 103 pages long, with more than 27,000 words, though she's been at it less than a year.
She said she enjoys working with children, something she's done most of her life. After graduating from the University of Delaware in 1970, where she majored in history with a minor in social studies, she got a job as a science teacher at Milton Middle School – now Milton Elementary.
“I didn't come out of college to be a teacher; I came out to be a journalist or a researcher,” she said. “There was a science teacher shortage, so I was hired on a conditional basis.”
Her principal, Marion Pepper, got her into a federal program that paid for graduate classes that allowed her to achieve a special status teacher's certificate. She spent the next 21 years teaching the same grade (fifth), the same subject (science), in the same room and, for the last nine years, from the same book.
“When I first started teaching, there were 30 kids and it was kind of scary, 30 against 1,” she said. “That's when I learned they were a captive audience. We were all in there together, so that's when I decided we could have fun and really enjoy learning.”
While teaching, Hudson worked part time shoeing horses. Then in 1991, she resigned from her post at Milton Middle and took on the job full time. She said it was a labor of love, but it eventually took its toll and she had to move on to another job.
“When you're shoeing horses, you're lifting weights for a living,” she said. “If you're up on a roof with a shingle and a nail and you're hammering that in, nothing's really moving. But if you're holding a horse's foot, the horse's foot is moving. That means that nail is moving and your hammer is moving and you're still trying to get everything right.”
In 1998, Hudson joined SCI in Georgetown as a counselor. She worked with inmates to help them enroll in classes where they could earn a GED or learn other skills, such as masonry or carpentry, so they could find work after serving their time.
“I would help them learn the rules of the prison, how to be active, how to be accountable, how to be socialized inside the prison, so they could get through their sentence as easily and quickly and safely as possible,” she said.
She spent 12 years at the prison before retiring in October 2010. About a year earlier, she bought her horse as a retirement gift to herself. She said she found MP Shira Bey through an online classified website similar to a dating website.
“They'll bring up profiles for a horse and narrow it down,” she said. “You just type in what you want, like Arabian, gray, the gender, the price range, the area, the state. What's there will pop up, and you can take a look at it.”
An online registry supplied her with MP Shira Bey's pedigree and background, so her decision was nearly made before ever meeting the horse.
“She would've had to be three-legged lame for me not to go home with her,” she said.
She tells people her horse is the daughter of kings because of the well known stallions in her pedigree. MP Shira Bey's mother died during child birth, so the horse was raised on a bottle by two women. She said that left an impression with the horse.
“She doesn't think she's a horse. She thinks she's people,” Hudson said. “She actually misses people when they're not around. She expects to be played with and petted. And while she tolerates other horses, she prefers people.”
Hudson has been riding horses nearly her entire life. She said her mother, Cornelia J. Pruitt, had her on a horse when she was still in nursery school, riding with a lead line so she didn't have to control the horse.
“I would just be sitting there holding the reins but not controlling the horse,” she said. “If I would fall off, she would wait for me to get back on.”
She grew up in center city Wilmington, and her mother worked for the DuPont company, where she worked herself up from the secretarial pool to financial analyst with the power to move hundreds of thousands of dollars with a single phone call. Hudson's mother has played an important role in her life, teaching her many lessons she still recalls today.
When Hudson and her long-time partner, Lynn Ekelund, were the first same-sex couple to be joined in civil union in Sussex County, Hudson's mother was there. Her mother was the reason the couple ended up the county's first.
“We just signed up for 11:30 because my 89-year-old mother wanted to have an early lunch and go home and take a nap,” she said. “It just so happened we were the first.”
Her mother resides at Methodist Manor House in Seaford, where she is still “playing in the dirt” in her garden.
Hudson and Ekelund are each heavily involved in the community, as Ekelund also spends much of her time volunteering as a member of the Milton Historical Society, the Milton Farmers Market and the town's planning and zoning commission. Hudson said it's easy to be active in the community.
“I see people who they sit around and moan and groan and complain they have nothing to do,” she said. “All you have to do is look at the Cape Gazette and there are organizations that are just crying for volunteers. There's really no excuse not to have fun things to do in your retirement.”