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Volunteer's warm smile welcome at HIMG

Mar. 17, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

How many times have you met someone for the very first time, only to wish you had just one more opportunity to start that meeting all over again? Regardless of the mistakes you may have made during that initial encounter, you realize too late that you will never again get that second chance to make a first impression.

One individual who repeatedly maximizes that first impression throughout her day is 73 year-old Mary Lou Markin, who simply bubbles over with her nonstop unique brand of homespun enthusiasm. Her smile is highly contagious, and her facial expressions are as genuine as a warm, well-fed puppy with a wet nose. What makes all these attributes so vastly important is the highly visible volunteer position she has occupied at HIMG for several years.

Ever since the grand opening of HIMG in 2006, at its current location near the 29th Street exit at I-64, Markin has been volunteering a few hours of her time there every week. Her picture-perfect smile comes into view as you enter through the front glass doors. Right behind that large front counter, there she is, ready to answer your questions, offer assistance and provide directions. Anything that will make your visit less traumatic, that's what she is about. Even if it requires helping you locate your lost car out in the parking lot. All you need to do is just ask.

"People often ask me where I learned to smile so much," said Markin. "The answer I give most often is that maybe it's those 30-plus years I spent teaching public school. It's facetious I know, but my answer is always good for another smile or two. And that's really why I'm here, to make people smile, even if it's just a little. "

Markin is a 1957 graduate of Barboursville High School. She received her diploma on the same stage that her mother did 20 years prior. The only difference is that Mary Lou went on to graduate from Marshall College in 1961. She survived three decades of teaching in public classrooms. Strangely enough, she never enjoyed the luxury of an air-conditioned classroom until her last year of teaching at Cabell Midland.

"You just don't really miss something you never had," said Markin. "I grew up without air conditioning, even attended school without it. So I just assumed if I was going to teach, as long as the classroom was warm during the winter, I was not going to complain. Heck, we even had indoor plumbing when I attended school way back in good ol' Salt Rock."

When asked about family life on the farm growing up with two sisters and a brother in Salt Rock, there was a pause, another wide smile, followed by more reminiscing.

"Well, I hate to disappoint you," said Markin. "But it really wasn't what you call a farm. Back in those days everyone had a chicken or two, a few cows, a family garden, and a pig for butchering. Like everyone in the neighborhood, we preserved everything from the garden for winter."

After her retirement in 1995, Markin became the primary care provider for her invalid sister. When her sister passed away, Markin began spending more time with her church in Barboursville. She began teaching the younger kids in Sunday school classes, taking the senior members of the church on field trips, having birthday celebrations, conducting Thursday bible study for adults, afternoon luncheons and making all occasional cards to send out.

In 2002, Markin was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. During one her many visits to the old HIMG location on 20th street, her doctor asked if she would be interested in volunteering at the new location. Many of her friends told her that the invitation was a direct result of her smile.

"That's how I got here," said Markin. "This place has helped my arthritis, given me purpose, and introduced me to a thousand new friends that walked right up to this desk looking for help. It's just a pleasure for me to volunteer here. It's uplifting, enjoyable, and I love helping others."

Something else this lady enjoys doing is playing Mrs. Santa Claus when working at HIMG -- and not only during the Christmas season passing out candy to the kids, but also during a special Christmas in July celebration for cancer survivors. And we're not talking about a passive role of getting all dressed up as Mrs. Claus and answering the front phone. She zooms around the halls at HIMG having pictures taken with patients while flashing that thousand-dollar smile of hers.

But there is another side to this mild-mannered seasonal Santa, and it's a time-consuming hobby of quilting. Not just on the dining room table either, we're talking 4 to 5 times a week. Even if for only an hour or so, she quilts at home.

"I belong to two quilting guilds," said Markin. "We meet monthly at various locations. Over the years I suppose I've made 40 to 50 of them. You know they can be any size? But by definition, a quilt has to have a pieced-together top, some type of interior batting and a solid back. It can be as small as a placemat or as large as a bed covering."

Quilting isn't the only love of her life. After her dog, Annie, passed away, she decided that was it for canine companionship -- that is until her brother dropped off a "Yorkie-poo" for just a "couple of hours" and never got her back.

If you're interested in applying for the front desk concierge position when Markin finally turns in her Santa outfit, the news isn't good. She plans on staying until the rapture occurs. Even then, if your smile isn't half as bright, you don't have a chance to replace her.

Clyde Beal is an area freelance writer always waiting to hear from anyone with a family story to share. Write him at archie350@frontier.com.