LIVE OAK — In 2010, Mary Dennis won a hotly contested race to become the first African-American woman elected mayor of the city.
Ten years later, she is still at the helm, helping shepherd the growing town into the 2020s.
According to colleagues, supporters and friends, Dennis has dedicated herself completely to her constituents as a leader, including bringing the state’s newest Ikea to Live Oak.
The mayor credits her success to one factor: caring about those she serves.
“What I love about Live Oak the most is that, even though we’re in the middle of this large metropolitan area in San Antonio, it still feels like a small town,” Dennis said. “It feels like a hometown where people can really get to know their neighbors.”
The Mississippi native first moved to San Antonio with her family, then relocated to Live Oak in the 1990s.
Holding a degree in mortuary science, she worked as a licensed undertaker before becoming a homemaker and a mother. Dennis never envisioned a life of public service. However, a strong sense of duty led her on an unexpected path, she said.
In fact, her political journey literally began with a road.
“It started about 23 years ago when we moved to Live Oak and my street was unpaved,” she said. “My neighbor said, ‘Let’s go down to City Hall and get our road paved,’ and I did. I was kind of intrigued by the process. I was a very happy stay-at-home mom at the time, but I was very intrigued by learning how a city is run.”
Dennis earned a spot on the Planning and Zoning Commission, ultimately climbing to City Council and the mayor’s office.
During the 2010 contest, Dennis led a successful campaign that put her in the mayor’s seat.
“I lost my first election for City Council by something like 25 votes, but I would later get appointed and served that term,” she said. “I lost the second time by about two votes, and then someone resigned and I was appointed again. I think, in total, I served about 2 1/2 years on the City Council and then one day my daughter said, ‘Mom, you should run for mayor.’ So, I ran for mayor.”
Along the way, Dennis acquired a reputation among fellow city administrators as willing to do anything to better the community and ensure everyone played a part.
“I’ve enjoyed working under her leadership in the city and I know that Live Oak has benefited greatly by having her as our mayor,” said Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Dahl. “She has always had a very diplomatic approach to things. Even though we might be in different camps, if you will, she has a way of bringing people together for the common good of the city.”
Under her direction, Live Oak has seen almost unprecedented growth, officials said. She was instrumental in securing Ikea’s area location, and creating Gateway Plaza shopping center along Loop 1604.
Her peers value Dennis’ reliability.
“Mayor Dennis is the type of (council member) that really stays in their lane and really understands the concept of good government,” said City Manager Scott Wayman. “She’s really been wonderful. She’s always active in the community and everything she does, she does with the city of Live Oak in mind. She’s a wonderful servant leader and has been a great mentor to me over the years.”
Dennis has also received her share of accolades. During a recent gala, the San Antonio Women’s Chamber of Commerce recognized her as a Constellation of Stars honoree. The eighth annual event lauded female leaders in the community who advocate, connect and empower women, girls and family, according to a statement.
Girding for a new decade, Dennis said she’d remain focused on her city’s needs.
“The thing that I love the most about my job, and I know this sounds silly, is the people,” she said. “I love the people. Whether I’m having a good day or a bad day, I still love the people I serve. … I feel like I am doing what I was put on this Earth to do. I was put here to serve others. That may be corny, but that’s really what I feel.”