By Patrick Yeagle
She grew up the only girl with five brothers. Maybe that was where Mary Therese Vann first learned to hold her own.
Known as M.T. to many, Mary Therese Vann of Springfield died Dec. 31, 2016, leaving a respected legacy of making her own way in the worlds of business and social justice.
M.T. Vann was born July 28, 1961, to Bill and Theresa Vann of Springfield. She attended St. Agnes Grade School, Sacred Heart Academy and the University of Illinois. Most recently, she was known in Springfield for starting a real estate firm, Prairie Property Solutions. However, M.T. was also a strong advocate for LGBT rights and animal rights, a generous philanthropist and a helping hand in times of need.
The Most Rev. Kevin Vann, who serves as bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in California, is one of M.T. Vann’s five brothers. Unlike many people in Springfield, he still affectionately uses his sister’s full name instead of her initials. He also still remembers the night she was born into a family that already had four young boys.
“We had gathered at my grandparents’ house,” he recalls. “My grandfather came in and said, ‘It’s a girl.’ My grandmother didn’t believe him. We were all boys at that point. It was just a wonderful thing.”
Vann remembers Mary Therese as larger than life and as always having a heart full of gratitude.
“She would do anything for anybody,” he said. “She would help all kinds of people on the margins of society.”
One of the things Vann admired most about his sister was her sacrifice in caring for their aging parents in the years before they died. The other siblings had moved around the country by that point, he said, so Mary Therese stepped up to help. Theresa Vann died in 2012, and Bill Vann died in 2014.
“She was really heroic helping Mom and Dad,” Vann said. “She never complained. She knew that they worked unselfishly for us. Family was really important to her.”
Vann notes that Mary Therese was committed to Springfield and took seriously the responsibility that comes with being part of a well-known family. When something needed to be done, he said, Mary Therese was “not just words; she was words and action.”
“She was socially engaged and went out of her way to do things for other folks,” he said. “That kind of presence will be greatly missed.”
Jonna Cooley, executive director of the Phoenix Center in Springfield, met M.T. Vann around 2006. Cooley says she and Vann instantly became friends, in part because of their shared passion for LGBT issues. Vann soon joined the Phoenix Center’s board of directors and eventually served as board president for eight years and as an honorary board member afterward.
Cooley says Vann never hid who she was, but rather embraced it. In doing so, Vann created space for others to be themselves.
“She said things other people wanted to say but couldn’t,” Cooley said. “She definitely opened doors for the LGBT community in Springfield.
Cooley laughs as she recalls one of Vann’s well-known responses whenever someone approached her for help: “I’ve got a guy.”
“M.T. was the person everybody went to,” Cooley said. “If you had a great thing you were celebrating, you called M.T. because you wanted her to know. If you had a problem, you called M.T. because she would find you help. She would say, ‘I’ve got a guy,’ and she’d give you a name and number to call.”
Cooley praises Vann’s ability to stay cool, even during conflict.
“No matter if you were in a frenzy, she was always pretty even,” Cooley said. “She would listen even if she was ticked off, and most of the time, you would walk away with an understanding. She could bridge gaps like no one else.”
John Kerstein was Vann’s business partner at Prairie Property Solutions, the residential real estate firm they created together in 2012. Kerstein says one of Vann’s best qualities was her ability to lead people “without them feeling like they were being led.” He admired Vann’s tenacity, drive and perseverance, but like many who knew her, he emphasizes her eagerness to help others.
“M.T. touched countless lives,” he said, comparing to her St. Francis. “There was always somebody she was helping. That was her life’s mission.”
Springfield real estate agent Sam Perks met M.T. Vann when she invited him to join Prairie Property Solutions in 2015. Perks said he was instantly drawn to Vann’s charisma and trustworthiness.
“Whether it was a personal issue or a business issue, it didn’t matter – day or night – she was one person always I always knew I could count on,” he said, adding that he had planned to contact M.T. for advice just before her death.
“It’s sobering to realize the void that now exists,” he said. “It’s easy to take for granted the people who are most capable in your life. Not having her here makes it even more apparent that she was one of the most capable people I ever met.”
A celebration of life service for Mary Therese Vann is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Jan. 6 at the Crowne Plaza, 3000 S. Dirksen Parkway. Donations in memorial may be sent to the Theresa Vann Scholarship Fund, c/o St. John’s Hospital, 800 E. Carpenter St., Springfield, IL 62702, or the Phoenix Center, 109 E. Lawrence Ave., Springfield, IL 62704.
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.