Serving the community runs in Senator Mary Kay Papen’s family. She has made it part of her life and instilled it in her descendants. This four-term New Mexico legislator was elected to the seat once held by her late husband, Frank O’Brien Papen, and is now the senate president pro tempore. The family commitment to service stretches to her son-in-law, Greg Smith, who is the mayor pro tem of the city of Las Cruces, making what Mary Kay’s daughter and Greg’s wife, Allison Kuper Smith, calls “a family of pro tems.”
Mary Kay learned about community service from mother, Katherine Mottin Briesh. As a child in El Paso, Mary Kay witnessed her mother’s dedication to local issues. She also demonstrated the importance of education by returning to school to complete a degree as a young mother, something Mary Kay did herself, earning a degree in horticulture from NMSU.
George Kuper, Mary Kay’s first husband, was the father of 17-year-old Susan Kay and their three-year-old adopted daughter, Allison, when he died in a plane crash. A second marriage to Don Niewold ended in divorce, and later she married Frank O’Brien Papen, a friend of her first husband’s she had known for years.
Frank was already a cornerstone of the community and the state, being the majority shareholder, president, and CEO of First National Bank of Doña Ana County and building for it the tallest building in Las Cruces, now known as the Wells Fargo Tower. He served the community as a state legislator for 19 years.
Mary Kay says, “He was always interested in bringing good businesses to Las Cruces,” explaining that he was instrumental in several large businesses coming to the area and he worked hard to support NMSU.
Frank also carried the original legislation creating the New Mexico Border Authority, an agency that provides leadership in the development of the state’s international ports of entry. “The Border Authority was something he was so proud of and so involved in. He cut the ribbon three different times to open the border,” Mary Kay shares.
Mary Kay remembers with a laugh that when movie buff Frank was stuck on how to solve an issue, he’d go to a theater to see a Western. More often than not, the solution to the problem would come to him and he’d jump up to get the wheels in motion.
The Frank O’Brien Papen Center, a community rec center in the Mesilla Park area, is named for her husband. Appropriately enough, that’s where daughter Allison began first grade and is close to where Mary Kay and many family members now live.
Before being elected to the legislature, Mary Kay was already involved in her community, working with others to repurpose the old armory on Walnut and turn it into a women and children’s shelter for La Casa. She began her legislative involvement lobbying for mental health issues, inspired by her oldest grandson, who is schizophrenic and bipolar. She says, “If I sat on that side, with the legislators, instead of on this side begging, maybe I could make a difference.” So, she decided to run when Fernando Macias, who was then the senator for her district, decided to leave the legislature and said he would support her.
“To take Frank’s seat was a huge thing because I think he made a difference,” Mary Kay says. “He had done so much not only for the community of Las Cruces, but for his district. I had big shoes that I was going to have to try to fill to make him proud of me.”
Even though Mary Kay has had an illustrious career in the legislature, introducing over 100 pieces of legislation, working on 18 committees, and serving as the second female president pro tem of the New Mexico senate, she is proudest of her family. Her mother used to say, “You have to pay for your space.” Mary Kay reflects that sentiment by saying, “I think my greatest contribution is really my kids. I’ve worked very hard for mental health and domestic violence, but I think I have raised two very productive, contributing daughters. I think my daughters have paid for their space.”
Her family continues to make strong contributions to our community. Daughter Allison is the incoming president of Mesilla Valley Hospice and past president of Jardin de los Niños. Daughter Susan and her husband, Paul Vescovo, owned the Toyota dealership now owned by their son, George, and his wife, Amanda. Susan was state president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and a state racing commissioner. “Both my daughters have been very active members of the community. They each have contributed a lot, as have both of my sons-in-law, my grandson, and his wife,” she says. “I know my three great-grandchildren will do the same in the future. I’m very proud of my family.”
Mary Kay Papen isn’t done with community service. She is running for her fifth term in the state senate and still has much she would like to accomplish, from improving mental health services in the state to creating better paying jobs to keep our graduating students in the area, so other families can have the opportunity she’s had to live close to her extended family.
All in all, she says, “I’ve had a wonderful life.”