Learning, teaching and giving. These are attributes that were instilled in Mary R. Kensinger from her upbringing that continues to her many activities today. She was born on January 6, 1914 in Butler, Tenn., the middle child of Joe and Bessie Ray. She had a sister Margaret and brother Boyd. The family moved to Mountain City around 1920 when as Mrs. Kensinger puts it, “Joe Ray (her father) burned down Butler.” The family’s home caught fire and literally took the entire Main Street of Butler with it!
In 1932, during the Great Depression, the time came for Margaret and Mary to go to East Tennessee State Teacher’s College (later ETSU) but there was no money. Knowing how important education was for his two daughters, their father found a way. He borrowed $75 a quarter for the two girls with the promise of teaching jobs to repay. That money covered their room, meals and all school fees. Mrs. Kensinger typed term papers for a nickel a page for spending money. In their second quarter, under F.D.R.’s “New Deal,” the girls drew $17 a month from the NYA (National Youth Administration) for working on campus including peeling apples for the kitchen and working in the office of sociology professor Dr. Dorman Stout, Sr.
After receiving a teaching certificate in 1934, she taught at Muddy Branch, a two-room school that had no lock on the door, one windowpane out, a potbellied stove, a water bucket and an outhouse. The principal of the school, who only had a 4th grade education, taught the upper four grades for $40. She taught the first three grades for a salary of $60.
In May of 1935, Mrs. Kensinger arrived in Johnson City to work as a Junior Interviewer for the NRS (National Reemployment Service). Mrs. Kensinger, along with three others, signed up workers in ten counties for the new WPA (Works Progress Administration). The Johnson City office later became the District Office of Tennessee State Employment Service. She was the first woman Local Office Manager in the District and, as far as she knows, she was the first female in the volunteer state to attain that title. She organized offices in Elizabethton and Mountain City and later became the office manager in LaFollette, Tenn.
She was called back to Johnson City in 1934 to become the District Training Supervisor, where she met her husband of 56 years, J. C. Kensinger who was Manager of the Rogersville office and needed training. He disliked office work and bought a drug store. Mrs. Kensinger replaced him as Office Manager. Rogersville had no Chamber of Commerce, so she produced a brochure which was distributed to Southern Railway showing why Hawkins County was ideal for heavy industry. She says it may be coincidence, but shortly thereafter TVA put a power plant in one of the sites she promoted.
She later became head librarian of the Rogersville Public Library where she increased it to a full-time operation, combined the County and City Library Systems, and organized a Friends of the Library committee.
Well into her 60s, Mrs. Kensinger returned to ETSU in 1978 for a bachelors of science in history, and in 1981 received a masters of arts in library science. Although past the school retirement age, she became the Rogersville Middle School Librarian, then retired again.
Currently, she spends her time building an internet database of all the burials in Hawkins County. She hopes this will be a legacy for future generations.