COMPTON — While a Texas schoolgirl, growing up the daughter of a loving but often-absent railroad cook, Mary Buckner had an experience that changed her life.
"I was in elementary school, and they would have these orphans come by and entertain us," recalled Buckner, 65. "Their singing was so pitiful. They'd sing 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,' and I would cry. It would break my heart. And I would say, 'When I'm grown I'm going to take all of those orphans home.' And, you know, God answered that prayer."
If the thin, upright woman has not taken in all of life's orphans, she has helped at least 100 since opening her north Compton home to foster children 33 years ago.
On Tuesday, the City Council formally recognized the woman known by her children as "Mary Dear," commending her for "acting as mother, counselor and friend to the otherwise destitute children of our community."
Buckner's rewards, however, have come most often from the children she has nurtured so long in a three-bedroom house along a quiet Compton street.
"My life has been beautiful. I have been blessed," she said last week, sitting at the piano where she taught dozens of children to play.
She was surrounded by reminders of them--photos of children of all races and ages, from the 4-week-old black boy she took home in 1952 and raised as her own to the two young Korean daughters of American servicemen she also adopted.
'Through Thick and Thin'
On an end table stood a high school graduation photo on which a foster child had written, "To Mary Dear: Someone who has stuck with me through thick and thin. I love you and I appreciate everything you do."
In the next room, youngsters were at play.
"Come here children," she called softly, "and meet the gentleman."
From immaculate bedrooms, two tiny 5-year-old girls emerged, dressed in red and white, their hair curled and clipped.
On cue, they recited a short prayer of thanks for "flowers so sweet . . . the food we eat . . . birds that sing . . . everything." Then, smiling shyly, they skipped away.
"Isn't that sweet," she said. "But when they came here, they didn't know anything. I teach them things, not just have them here.
"I keep children for the pleasure of keeping children, because we never had any," said Buckner, referring to her late husband who, like her father, was a cook for a railroad.
They Have 'Been Through Such Trauma'
"But, you know, these children have been through such trauma. They have been hurt and they are just 5 years old. That's part of why I still take them. And they say I'm good with them."
That sentiment is widely held among those who have seen the children with Buckner, an outgoing, religious woman.
"It's very evident she gives the kind of care a loving parent would give," said Jean Coe, a teacher at nearby Washington Elementary School. "I've been to her home, and everything I've seen and heard tells me it would be a good place to stay."
The two kindergarten girls are in Coe's class and, though in Buckner's home just a few weeks, "they are increasingly contented, increasingly happy, increasingly less tense," the teacher said.
Buckner also is highly respected by caseworkers for the county Department of Children Services.
"There are certain special homes you hear about from the other workers," said caseworker Cynthia Sherman. "Mrs. Buckner's is one of those. She has an excellent reputation. I remember her very fondly.
"She is a very, very gracious person," said Sherman, "A lot of parents are hostile (when the children are taken away), but she was always so patient and very kind to them."
A firsthand witness to Buckner's successes is Brenda Edwards, 29, adopted from a Korean orphanage 26 years ago.
"I want you to get this message in your article," Edwards told a reporter: "She is great at what she does.
"There would be as many as six of us there at a time," said Edwards, who said she visits Buckner every weekend, "but she is one of those people who is born to take care of kids. She wasn't very strict, but she always had it perfectly under control. She really made you feel a sense of security and a sense of love, and you really didn't want to jeopardize that."
Buckner moved into foster care as her dreams of having a child faded. Her first foster child was an abandoned boy whom she named Stanley. "I cried when we had to put him up for adoption, so I adopted him," she said.
Now 33 years later, she has helped raise many dozens of children. (Not even the county knows the number for sure.) She receives $268 a month to care for each of the smallest children, she said, but the rewards are in the memories and in the 15 or 20 familiar faces that pop up frequently at her front door.
In that way, the benefits of her life's work are ongoing, she said, and a part of her is saying it is time to retire.
"But these children still need me," she said, "and they give me company."