Mary Stella enjoys a swim with dolphins Santini and Cacica before her retirement in December 2022. CONTRIBUTED

For the first time in more than two decades, Grassy Key’s Dolphin Research Center will usher in a new era in media and marketing with the retirement of Mary Stella, the nonprofit’s guiding hands in the department since 2002. 

Stella’s draw to the facility began long before it was even known as Dolphin Research Center. She recalled first visiting dolphins at the property in 1963, when original owner and training pioneer Milton Santini would allow his audiences to jump in the lagoons and swim with the pod after each of his public presentations.

“It inspired a lifelong fascination,” she said.

That fascination grew throughout the years as her family became repeat visitors to the Keys, eventually purchasing the home she lives in now in 1978. She eventually developed her own successful freelance journalism, marketing and public relations business in the northeast while serving as a full-time caregiver for her mother, but found herself struggling immensely after her mother’s passing in 1998.

“I was sort of foundering,” she said. “I was like, okay, well, where’s my purpose now?”

Following short stints as a DRC volunteer and volunteer assistant in 2000 and 2001 – the facility had by that time changed hands to its present iteration – Stella made the decision to move to her family’s Keys home full time. 

“(Volunteering had) changed my life … because I was here actively every single day, hands on, being part of the work,” she said. “It deepened my understanding of the DRC mission. … So I called the woman who was the volunteer resources director at the time and I said, ‘I’ll be back again this year. If there’s a job I can do, great. If there isn’t, I’ll volunteer until there is one.’”

Her faith in the facility and its mission was soon rewarded, as the facility’s media relations coordinator position opened in 2002, a few months after her move. 

With no extensive marketing plan – or even a true budget – in place at the time of her hire, Stella would help guide the organization’s media and marketing strategies through 20 years of arguably the largest global shift in information consumption and advertising. True story: her efforts even included setting up one of Keys Weekly publisher Jason Koler’s first major local interviews, along with the first-ever Marathon Weekly cover photo of an adorable dolphin “kiss.”

“It was just amazing being able to connect with places and people immediately,” she said. “I think particularly when you’re in the field that we’re in, and our mission is to teach, learn and care, when you can do that by immediately being accessible to your audience, that’s a game changer.”

Asking Stella to brag on her professional and community accomplishments over the past few decades is, as we found out, an incredibly tall task. She maintains that her proudest moments were tied to widespread coverage sharing DRC research breakthroughs or mission-based stories revolving around manatee rescues and the facility’s work with veterans.

We learned after the fact that she served as a former chair of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, and though she won’t take credit, Stella was an integral component of the facility’s daily Facebook Live streams that began during the COVID-19 pandemic – broadcasts that to this day have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the facility while featuring everything from massive donation match challenges to live streams of collaborative painting projects with the dolphins and renowned artist Wyland.

“Mary has been such an innovator during her 20 years here,” said DRC CEO Rita Irwin. “Acting as our voice … she helped amplify DRC’s profile in our industry. She expanded our reach in the digital world. Her can-do attitude set the bar high and she will be greatly missed.”

Stella’s reach in the Marathon community goes well beyond the Grassy Key dolphin lagoons. For the many Marathon residents who enjoy the city’s dog park next to Rotary Park, you can thank Stella and the vocal group of citizens who spearheaded the project from the beginning until its opening in January 2010 – raising the necessary $27,000 with 13 fundraisers in six months along the way.

Though she’s celebrating the start of retirement without an exact agenda, Stella told the Weekly she’s looking forward to “being able to say ‘yes’ to more things that interest me” and crossing destinations off her “promise list” – “I never call it a ‘bucket list,’ because bucket lists have a deadline,” she said. 

“I’m grateful to have spent the last 20-plus years living a life of purpose that’s not just about a paycheck,” she said. “I don’t want to have an aimless retirement that only serves me; I want there to still be purpose in it.”

The staff at the Marathon Weekly joins the DRC crew in wishing Mary – and her four-legged 24/7 companion Mia – a happy, healthy and well-deserved retirement.

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.