Mary John Grelling Spence still has the smile of a queen and a heart for helping others.
Mrs. Spence, 93, was honored Sunday with a special reception for her longtime service to the Texas Rose Festival and the Tyler Rose Garden Museum.
She sat in the center of the rose museum, in front of the dazzling fur- lined and jewel encrusted dress she wore 74 years ago, chatting with guests and smiling for cameras.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “I’m loving every minute of it. It couldn’t be better.”
Mrs. Spence has had in integral role in the Texas Rose Festival since she was crowned queen in 1940, 19 months before the United States entered World War II.
She married her date to the conation, the late Ralph Spence, who served as the president of the Texas Rose Festival in 1965.
She was a founding member of the Tyler Rose Museum board of directors, which, lobbied for the creation of the museum and helped raise funds for the endeavor. The museum opened in 1992.
“She’s wonderfully sweet and gracious, always,” said Jane Hartley Coker, 1983 Texas Rose Festival queen. “I’ve never seen her angry. … She’s the kind of person you love to do things with and for.”
Mrs. Spence said serving as the rose queen was an unforgettable experience, but she was unnerved when she was told the coronation was moved from Bergfeld Park to the Caldwell Auditorium due to weather. The change meant she would have to go down a flight of stairs.
“I was scared to death,” she recalled. “I was afraid I’d fall down the stairs. Well, as it turned out my train was so heavy that I couldn’t have fallen down the steps if they’d pushed me.”
Mrs. Spence’s involvement in the betterment of the city has deeper roots than the decades of service she brought to the festival and museum. She also was involved with the Junior League of Tyler, the Salvation Army, PATH, The University of Texas at Tyler and Tyler Junior College and Christ Episcopal Church.
“I love Tyler,” Mrs. Spence said. “Tyler has meant so much to me. I think it’s a beautiful city, and I love raising my children here. It’s been a fabulous experience.”
All three of the couple’s children were involved in the tradition, Mrs. Coker said. Their daughter Louise Grelling Spence served as queen in 1968. Her queen dress emulated her mother’s design using white fur and silver beading. Both dresses sat side by side in the display in the Tyler Rose Museum.
Daughter Judy Spence Tate served as a lady in waiting. Their son Ralph Spence Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps and married his date to the coronation, said Harry L. Caserta Jr., secretary and treasurer of the Order of the Rose.
“The theme of the 1940 coronation was the ‘Ambassador’s Queen,’ and Mary John we know you loved it because for 75 years you have truly served Tyler and the Texas Rose Festival as the ambassador queen.”
Sunday was proclaimed Mary John Grelling Spence day in the city of Tyler by District 4 Councilman Don Warren.
“Mrs. Spence, I want to thank you for everything you have done for the city of Tyler, for everything that you do,” the newly elected council member said before issuing the proclamation on behalf of Mayor Martin Heines.
“I’m very proud and honored to read this proclamation.”
The 2014 Texas Rose Festival Queen Kathryn Elizabeth Peltier and Duchess of the Texas Rose Festival Kathleen Bertram presented Mrs. Spence with a special gift. Liz Ballard, executive director of the Texas Rose Festival and Tyler Rose Museum, presented her with a program from the 1940 coronation and read a poem inside it that was dedicated to her.
Mrs. Spence said she hopes her efforts have made the town she loves become even better.
“I think it’s a great city, and I’m proud of it,” she said. “I want it to keep on being that way. I love what they are doing downtown with the apartments above. I think it’s great.”