Mary poses in the sitting room of her cottage.

Kendal at Lexington, a serene haven nestled amidst nature’s splendor, has always been more than just a place to call home. It is a vibrant community brimming with captivating individuals and abundant opportunities for intellectual and physical stimulation. A new initiative titled “Faces of Kendal at Lexington,” invites you to join us in celebrating the diverse and inspiring residents who contribute to the tapestry of life at Kendal. Through their unique stories, experiences and achievements, we aim to showcase the rich tapestry of personalities that make the community truly special.

As we mark the 23rd anniversary of the opening of Kendal at Lexington, we take this opportunity to reflect on the contributions of one of our original residents, Mary Coulling. Mary has made Kendal at Lexington her home for more than two decades, and during that time, she has seen a dream become a reality and has witnessed the transformation of a disparate group of individuals into a true community. As a longtime member of Kendal’s welcoming committee, she is always willing to lend a helping hand and she cherishes the opportunity to become acquainted with new and interesting residents.

Meet Mary

Meet Mary, a spry 95-year-old and one of the original residents who joined Kendal at Lexington on the day the community first opened its doors, July 17, 2000. With her husband, Sidney, who served as a professor of English at Washington and Lee University, Mary committed to the vision of Kendal at Lexington back in 1995. Little did she know that this decision would shape the next chapter of her life in a memorable way.

Reflecting on the past twenty-three years, Mary fondly recalls the momentous day when she and Sid and seven others first moved into Kendal at Lexington. Over time, Mary has become the sole remaining member of the original group, residing in the same cluster cottage she first called home all those years ago. With gratitude, Mary cherishes her continued independence, along with the care she receives as a resident.

Life Before Kendal

Mary was born in Shanghai, China, into a family dedicated to Presbyterian missionary work. At the age of 10, she and her family returned to the United States and resided in Baltimore for several years before settling in Salt Lake City, Utah, where her father became the chairman of the surgery department at the University of Utah medical school.

After high school in Salt Lake City, Mary graduated from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. Her family’s connection to missionary work extended to her uncle, who relocated to Rockbridge County after being held under house arrest by Communists in China. Mary joined him in Lexington, serving as his secretary. She later worked at both the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and Washington and Lee University (W&L).

After her children reached adulthood, Mary’s enthusiasm for research and writing led her to publish two notable books. “The Lee Girls” delves into the lives of Robert E. Lee’s four daughters, offering a unique perspective on this iconic American family. She also authored a biography of Margaret Junkin Preston, a renowned poet and the sister-in-law of Stonewall Jackson. Throughout her literary journey, Mary deeply appreciated historical figures and their impact on society. It took her more than 25 years to complete “The Lee Girls” which involved countless trips to the Library of Congress and the Virginian Historical Society in Richmond to garner information about the Lee family. Today, copies of her two books are shelved in the collections of the Kendal at Lexington Tutwiler Library.

During the nearly 60 years of their marriage, Mary and Sid were actively involved in service to the local community. Both were elders in the Lexington Presbyterian Church, and for 40 years, Mary sang in the church choir. Sid also served as a board member of the Stonewall Jackson Hospital, while Mary dedicated her time as a volunteer for various organizations, including the Girl Scouts, the League of Women Voters, and the Stonewall Jackson Foundation.

Mary and Sid have three children, six beloved grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Sid passed away in his home at Kendal in 2016. 

Early Kendal Days

Mary often reminisces about the early days, recalling how the original residents gathered for a celebratory meal of filet mignon and champagne on their first evening in the community’s unfinished dining room. Moving through corridors, still awaiting paint and traversing dusty floors with scattered debris and wires, they embraced a sense of camaraderie. Mary vividly remembers one workman on her first night living at Kendal asking if he could paint their bathroom while they were enjoying dinner. The focus of the group’s dinner conversation that evening was not on the unfinished aspects of their surroundings, but rather on their immense gratitude upon arriving at their new home.

Mary also recalls how those self-dubbed “pioneers” expressed their appreciation for all those who made their arrival possible. They acknowledged the visionaries who recognized the need for a retirement community in Lexington, the board members and staff dedicated to planning, fundraising and recruiting residents, and the generous supporters who provided startup funds. Today, Mary emphasizes the extraordinary generosity of Isabel and Fred Bartenstein, whose contribution of 84 acres and a large farmhouse made the entire Kendal at Lexington enterprise possible.

Looking back, she and the other residents could not have imagined the campus’s transformation and the countless trees that now grace the landscape. They recall the initial pastureland and a dream where only the old trees sheltering Sunnyside House stood. Indeed their early days at Kendal were filled with dreams , as Kendal Hall and the fitness center were yet to be realized. Exercise classes had to take place in the lobby of the Anderson Center. Everything was still in progress, and the residents embraced the potential. 

Grateful Living 

Mary’s journey from Shanghai to Lexington, her literary accomplishments, and her dedication to community involvement and service have left an indelible mark on her and the entire Kendal community.

“I am grateful that I am still here,” Mary shares with heartfelt appreciation. “Grateful that I am able to stand on my own two feet, having been cared for in a remarkable way by a loving and professional staff at Kendal at Lexington. Grateful for the many folks who have joined this Kendal enterprise over the last two decades. Grateful for the friendships and memories I have garnered in these twenty-three years. Grateful for those who lived here but are no longer here to celebrate with us today.”

Mary’s varied background and her many years at Kendal at Lexington exemplify the spirit of community, gratitude and resilience that permeates every corner of this exceptional retirement community. As we continue to grow and welcome residents, we honor the legacy of those like Mary, whose vision and dedication have shaped Kendal into the vibrant and nurturing environment it is today.