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Mary Soddy: A sunny outlook and a wealth of ideas
MONROE - When Mary Soddy was a girl, her nickname was "Little Mary Sunshine."

It makes her laugh now, since very few people still call her that, but the reason she got the name is most certainly still applicable.

She's almost always smiling.

And along with that smile, there's a very strong, positive personality Soddy wears. She said it's simply because she has found her calling in life, and not just as a photographer. As a self-proclaimed "idea person," Soddy said she loves being a part of groups, committees and boards where she can play devil's advocate, be in the midst of strategic planning sessions and toss around ideas.

She loves helping people who pass through her life from her photography business as much as she loves being a part of the nonprofit organizations and the changes Monroe has seen over the years.

Soddy was born in Princeton, Illinois, and after her grandfather died, her family moved to Warren when she was 2. The family lived in town, and Soddy's father owned and operated the Ben Franklin store there. Since they didn't have a lot to do for fun, she said she often would find creative ways to keep busy.

As she got older, she worked in the store as much as she wanted, and the business was a perfect fit for Soddy, who has always loved people.

"From the time I could reach the register, I worked retail," Soddy said. "I loved it."

She worked through high school at the store - she remembers the Beatles were popular and the store sold several of their items. She was a strong student who earned good grades, she said, and she knew she would eventually go on to school because, as the oldest child, it was her chance to go somewhere in the world.

The 1967 Warren High School graduate started summer school for computer programming in Chicago, but it wasn't a good fit from the start. She then landed a job at Swiss Colony in the computer department for three years, but Soddy, being somewhat of a free spirit, decided early the corporate world wasn't for her.

She then worked as a gardener for Brennan's for a year. At that time, her mother served as a correspondent for several local papers around the area. Soddy wrote a little for The Monroe Evening Times, providing high school coverage from the Warren area. Later, she wrote for the United Country Courier and loved interviewing all of the business people in the area.

Once Soddy was married, she decided to start teaching piano in her home. She had taken lessons since she was 7 and was from a very musical family. Her father and his brothers had a jazz band that played at Turner Hall's first grand opening in 1938.

"I grew up with Big Bands and I was always snapping my fingers," Soddy said.

Piano came easily for Soddy and teaching lessons was a natural gift. She loved children and related well to them. She taught for more than a decade and had 50 students at any given time.

Teaching piano lent itself to Soddy getting to know about people and other organizations in Monroe. When she reached out to hold a recital at the Monroe Arts Center, she found the grand piano there and shortly after began volunteering.

Soon, she was asked to be on the board and came late to a meeting where they had voted her in as the secretary before she arrived. That was in the late 1970s, and she's been the secretary ever since. She said she's proud to have been just a piece of the big puzzle that has helped the MAC flourish.

"I got involved with all these people who really care about their town," Soddy said.

She also joined the Monroe Theatre Guild board of directors when it was looking for business people. She's happy she has watched and been a part of the group that has grown and found a facility that serves it well.

Soddy started helping out with her husband's photography business, Creative Photography. She quickly realized she loved it, enjoyed the people and gave up teaching piano to take it over herself when they divorced. It was the 1980s and the economy was strong. It wasn't long before she needed more room, and she moved to her location now, just off of the Square, around 1990.

She was always taking continuing education courses and in 2001, Soddy earned her professional photography certification. In 2003, she received her master of photography through the Professional Photographer's Association.

A go-getter, Soddy loved working with other professionals. She said they empowered her and allowed her to set hefty goals, most of which she achieved. She was educating herself constantly back then and was involved in several photography outlets.

"It was my goal to be certified, buy a house and a store," Soddy said. "And I was able to do all of those things."

Soddy enjoyed the work and began teaching photography classes privately and at Blackhawk Technical College, where she served on the board for 10 years. When photography began to drastically change and film was switched out for digital, Soddy said, amateurs entered the field and the business was cheapened. Because she knew piano, she branched out and began playing professionally for parties, at restaurants and other special functions. She also began teaching again for about five years.

In 2005, Soddy decided to join Kiwanis Club after being asked to play piano for the group and served for 10 years. She also loved their strategic planning sessions and tossing around ideas for the group. Soddy also has been a part of the Driftless Artists Association, the Green-Lafayette County Landlords Association, the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, Main Street Concerts on the Square Committee, Professional Photographers of America, South Central Photographer's Association and is a former board member of the Monroe Woman's Club.

Her creativity is a strong part of what she often falls back on, she said, and it likely came from being bored as a child and being around a family full of stimulating people who loved to debate and discuss almost anything.

Soddy is still doing photography and loving it, just to a lesser extent these days. She mostly does sports photos and other specialty things she's asked. She still enjoys working with children.

"I don't wake up with the idea of making money," Soddy said. "I've known quite a few entrepreneurs. My spot in life, I've learned, is to help people and make their lives easier."

She said in her business through the years, people have come to her often and she's met several people who are still on a journey to be better. She hopes to empower each of them the way others have done for her.

Soddy is proud so many younger people in Monroe have stepped up to take the reins in improving the community. She served on the Main Street Publicity Committee at one time and says it was extremely fun to see the young people in Monroe who were so willing to help out.

"I'm so proud of what the young people have done here," Soddy said. "It's really cool to see this town turn around."

If she didn't need to make money, Soddy said her love right now is restoring really old photographs. She enjoys doing it and has sold some special Monroe prints. She currently takes thousands of photographs each year to help nonprofits in the area. She said she doesn't have money to give but is always willing to give her services when she can. She feels lucky she can attend events and enjoy them but also bring her camera along to help out.

From high-end events to helping lawyers out with photos for a case - Soddy has the personality that seemingly fits anything. It's part of the reason her business has been so dear to her. She loves that each day brings something new, and she said doing the same thing every day would've never worked for someone like her.

"Life is just too short not to be happy and have fun," Soddy said.

Soddy enjoys life to the fullest. She has cats and trains them on command after learning from books several years ago. She also enjoys attending classical music, jazz and theater events with friends.

Over the years, Soddy has traveled immensely and still enjoys it. She's been all over Canada and the East and West coasts of the United States, as well as Europe a few times and even Switzerland in 2003 to see her father's home. Her younger sister has gotten her interested in genealogy as well.

She also enjoys remodeling and redecorating her home, which is now above her studio. She also has sung and performed with the Bel Canto Singers.

Reflecting, Soddy is pleased that life led her back to Monroe, where much of her family lived at some point, where she has made her home and built a business.

"Monroe's been like my family," Soddy said. "You make your own family, and if you live in a place where you have that, you're lucky. I always feel like I have people I could call on if I need help."