There’s something about Mary

Mary Tsai, the beloved and much-admired GNAG executive director, will retire in the fall.

By Elspeth Tory

It’s hard to imagine GNAG without Mary.

The Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group has been an integral part of the Glebe for decades, providing recreational and social programming for all to enjoy. At its core, for as long as most of us can remember, has been its indefatigable executive director, Mary Tsai.

Thus it came as a surprise to many of us when Mary announced at our December board meeting that she would be retiring as executive director in 2022. The time has come for Mary to focus all that energy and enthusiasm on retirement adventures.

“But she’s only, like, 35!” my daughter insisted when I told her the news, and I’m sure half the neighbourhood is thinking the exact same thing. Mary’s fountain of youth has apparently been maintained by surrounding herself with children and bookending most work days by teaching bootcamp and yoga.

Mary started at the Glebe Community Centre in 1991 as the City’s program coordinator. In 1996, the City’s Department of Recreation and Culture was restructuring due to cutbacks. This coincided with GNAG creating its first full-time position and Mary was hired as executive director. She never looked back.

One of her favourite things about being with GNAG for so long? “The cycle of children who become volunteers, then staff, then parents and then their kids attend the centre to complete the circle,” she said excitedly. “I know, so cliché but so awesome!”

Yasir Naqvi and Mary Tsai

Her vision, according to former GNAG chair and staff member Jennie Aliman, was for GNAG to feel like the community’s living room. I think we can all agree that she, along with an incredibly dedicated team, has succeeded. Programming expanded rapidly, in part due to Mary’s willingness to always give any idea a chance and her intuitive understanding of what the community needs.

Mary Lovelace, former GNAG chair and staff member, always loved that positive attitude captured in her favourite Mary quote: “They say no, I say yes. Let’s make it happen.” Former chair Ian Nicol remembers initially laughing when Mary proposed adding a pole-dancing class to GNAG’s schedule (not aware that it had become a popular form of exercise) but given her dedication and proven track record along with her enthusiasm, it was never in doubt that pole dancing would be offered. It turned out to be yet again another successful program.

Former chair Kate McCartney said that working with Mary “feels like being tied to a rocket ship – always reaching new heights, sparking new innovative ideas and going a million miles an hour.” She was quick to add that Mary’s enthusiasm was always laser-focused “like a SpaceX rocket that efficiently lands back on the pad. Maximum effect with minimal downside and always super fun. If it can be done in a superhero costume, even better.”

COVID-19 has been an incredible challenge for GNAG, but Mary’s consistent and thoughtful leadership has been crucial to the organization’s survival. GNAG was one of the first groups to pivot to online classes, offered for free to the community to allow isolated people to stay connected. Mary worked with her team to find ways to offer the same excellent programming online as they did in person. She fought hard to keep the core team together and was always ready and willing to adjust the sails of her ship rather than sitting back and hoping the winds would change. Summer and holiday camps were put into place despite constantly changing restrictions; beloved events had to be cancelled, but Mary’s tenacity, drive and optimism never faltered.

From left: Jim Watson, Mary Tsai, Yasir Naqvi and David Chernushenko

“I cannot think of an occasion when Mary didn’t give her all and because of this, she inspired the rest of us to do the same,” says Clare Rogers, a longtime GNAG staff member. “Her work ethic, positivity and determination to make everything a success is infectious.”

The board is now tasked with looking for her replacement. As I attempted to write up Mary’s current responsibilities, I joked that I felt a bit like Jane and Michael Banks writing their wish list for a nanny in Mary Poppins. Rest assured that we will not expect her replacement to teach yoga, bootcamp, direct a children’s musical, run an online cooking class, put together the programming guide in Adobe InDesign, all while running an incredibly successful roster of programs. We are, however, excited to see what new ideas and opportunities our next executive director will bring.

They say that not all heroes wear capes. But if you happen to have passed through the community centre in the past few decades, you’ve almost certainly come across our very own Super Mary. Her cape flapping behind her, she brings smiles to little faces while blazing a trail forward and asking us all enthusiastically if we’d like to come along for the ride.

Elspeth Tory is the chair of Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group (GNAG) and a Glebe resident.


Interested in following in Mary’s footsteps as Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group’s executive director?
Visit for information on how to apply.

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