As told to Emily Kestel
Mary Kramer made history as the first woman to be independently elected as the president of the Iowa Senate in 1997. In 2003, she was sworn in as ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, where she served until 2006. She and her late husband, Kay, have two kids, four granddaughters and five great-grandchildren. She lives in Urbandale.
The following story has been formatted to be entirely in her own words, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I truly believe that being fearless is about taking risks. If you look at my career, I made some pretty big leaps.
If I were to sit on a panel where there was a contest for the most irrelevant undergraduate degree, I’d win. My first job, starting in undergraduate school, was being a piano performer in bars. Singalongs were very popular in those days and I could play by ear. I loved playing the piano. I was having a good time. I wasn’t really thinking about what else I could do.
That’s when the first Y in the road came, when I had to make a decision: Was I going to perform my whole life or was I going to teach? I looked around at my friends who were performers and thought, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a practice room.” As much as I enjoyed performing, I had no desire to work hard enough to play in Carnegie Hall. My professor was very disappointed in me that I had decided to teach.
I met my husband, graduated a year early and went to teach school in Newton. I was a vocal music teacher and he was the band director. We were there for four years and then realized that there was really no career path for us there. We had a great life, except it was going to be the same, year after year. So we went back to Iowa City.
I taught piano and Kay got his master’s. Then he got a job teaching in Cedar Falls at UNI. I was playing the organ for a big church and I taught 36 piano students a week. Then Kay became the director of an eight-state federal project that developed media and materials for what was then referred to as educationally handicapped kids. So we moved back to Iowa City because that’s where the project was. While we were there, I got my master’s in lifelong learning and went back to teaching. I became an elementary school principal. And then I became the assistant superintendent of schools of Iowa City.
In 1976, there were no other women administrators in school districts of that size. There was one other woman superintendent, but her husband had died and she was filling in for him for the remainder of the year.
Kay’s project eventually moved to Des Moines. The kids and I stayed in Iowa City until the end of the first semester, then we moved the kids here because I needed to finish out my contract in Iowa City.
A friend of mine had a search firm and she knew that Younkers was looking for a human resources director and that they really wanted a woman. They were in the process of changing from cash registers to a genuine point-of-sale system and they were pretty sure that the very senior saleswomen weren’t going to be able to adapt. They were interested in talking to me and they later hired me. I helped open 14 stores.
By then, I was getting recruited. I knew how to manage change and how to help train employees. Blue Cross Blue Shield was introducing a new computer system that would pay claims. So I went to work there.
In 1990, three women came to my door and asked if I would run for office. The woman who was currently in the Senate seat wanted to be replaced by a woman and they thought that I had enough name recognition to make the race easier. Former Gov. Bob Ray was the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield at the time, and they said, “We think it’s such a good idea that we’re going to go talk to him this afternoon.”
I really didn’t want to serve in the public sector. But Gov. Ray wanted to develop a template of how corporate America could share executives to serve in the legislature so you could get expertise from people other than farmers and lawyers. I thought I could do it and those women convinced me.
Running for office was the scariest thing I’d done, because it all plays out in public. Everything you do or say is right out in public and somebody will remember it. Running for Senate president was a big risk and it was a demanding position. I had difficult people to work with. Negotiating with people who have very strong opinions is very often confrontational.
I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to run again. My patience was waning. There was one year left in my term when the call came from the White House. It was on a Friday and we’d been in a special session. I had just landed in Hilton Head with Kay for a vacation. The minute I got off the plane, my phone went crazy. I thought, “It’s Friday night at 6 p.m. I’m not answering it.”
We drove to the resort and the woman at the front desk said, “Sen. Kramer, you have to call your office.” I thought, “Who died?” Meanwhile I was also thinking, “How does this girl know I’m a senator?” Eventually I called my assistant and she said that I had to call the White House. I said, “Becky, it is 7 p.m. Eastern on a Friday night.” She said, “They’re waiting for you.”
We were the go-to people for people from the White House who wanted to come to Iowa because I had run George W. Bush’s Iowa campaign in 2000. So I thought that someone had wanted to come. Wrong. It was the White House human resources office.
The woman said, “The president would like to know if you’d be willing to serve as ambassador to Barbados. He’d like for you to think about it over the weekend and call him back on Monday afternoon at 3 p.m.” I looked like a guppy. My mouth was wide open. Kay said to me, “Are you OK?” And I said, “I don’t know.”
Neither one of us really knew for sure where Barbados was. So we went to Barnes and Noble and got some travel books and coffee and thought, “Oh, maybe this isn’t so bad.” I asked Kay what we should do, and he said, “Let’s go to dinner, I’m starving.”
We really didn’t think about it or talk about it a lot that weekend. I honestly didn’t know what was expected of an ambassador or if I was qualified.
I called back at 3 p.m. on Monday and I said, “I don’t know if I’m qualified. I don’t know what’s expected. And one thing I know for sure is, I’m not a ribbon-cutter. I don’t want to go there and just attend cocktail parties.”
The woman said, “Could you hold for a minute?” So I’m holding and all of a sudden I hear, “Mary, I hear you have a question.” It was the president. He said, “I’m not sending you there for a walk on the beach.” I eventually said, “Yes, sir, we’ll go.”
We couldn’t tell anyone but our immediate family until the White House announced their intention to appoint me in early September. My son, who is definitely the serious older child, said, “That’s a great honor, Mom. Do you think you’ll be there by Christmas?” My daughter, who has spent a lot of her life proving that blondes have more fun, said, “That kicks ass. Go for it!”
The summer was full of paperwork. If you really want to be respected at a resort, have faxes start coming in from the White House. That really gets their attention. I had 14 inches of paperwork – I measured the stack.
When we got to the Senate confirmation hearing, I’m sitting at a long table in a black leather tufted chair. My feet couldn’t touch the floor so I was thinking, “I hope I don’t fall on my rear” because I couldn’t control the chair. So I went through the whole hearing on the edge of my seat so my feet could touch the floor. Fortunately both Sens. Harkin and Grassley were very supportive of me and felt it was good for Iowa to have somebody in the ambassador rank. I was eventually confirmed in December. The next night, we got to go to the White House Christmas party, which was a memorable event. Then I got sworn in by Secretary Powell, and it was off to Barbados.
Somewhere in that time, I had learned that I wasn’t just the ambassador to Barbados, but also to six other nations in the eastern Caribbean. I would be responsible for relationships with seven small countries in a place that I’ve never been, while living in a house I’ve never seen before and working with people I’ve never met. There was so much uncertainty. They all had different cultures.
I had to figure out how we were going to work together. I worked for the president of the United States. So the buck really did stop with me. If I didn’t get things done, we weren’t going to have it. That’s a different kind of pressure.
I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, but in 2007, I was ready to come home. It was a lot of work and a lot of pressure. I learned to really respect and admire the people in the Caribbean. But I was just on call all of the time.
It was probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I know I made a difference. The life experience was incredible.