Becoming the Star of Her Own Story
It is a place where the lines of countless playwrights baring their souls have been performed and songwriters’ music of the heart has been laid at the audience’s feet. Amidst its lights, stages and echoes of past catharses and applause, Tyra Brown McGary has chosen the backdrop of Hammond’s Columbia Theater to shine as she finds the strength of her own voice to share her personal story of tragedy and triumph.
The interview begins pleasantly enough. Tyra is charming, elegant and carries herself with a glowing confidence as she tells of her current endeavor, Encore Events and Travel. “I was heavily involved in advocacy at a young age and in 2000, my mom sat me down and asked what I wanted to do for myself. I replied, ‘I love parties,’ so my career in hospitality began. After years of experience working for other people, I asked, ‘Why not do this for myself?’ and I started my own company in 2012.”
Tyra has risen through the ranks to handle clients from American Express to the Zulu Social and Pleasure Club and everyone in between. “It could be an elaborate private dinner for two, to being part of a citywide conference hosting 300,000. I’ve worked with Jazz Fest, Essence Fest and many other productions. It’s rewarding to coordinate with other businesses and weave a huge project together, or to wow a corporate client with something out of their normal cookie-cutter, expectation.”
Suddenly, there is a confusing shift in the atmosphere as Tyra begins recounting her childhood. “I grew up in New Orleans, first Uptown and then Mid City, and it was my playground.” She dreamily recounts shopping on Canal Street, reading advanced books with her mother, roller skating, and family time at City Park. “I got the Key to the City as a child for academic excellence,” she continues as she begins softly crying. “It was an amazing childhood until 11 when my mom got into drugs and was sent to jail. We were uprooted with siblings going to different places and me being bounced around Ponchatoula. One minute I was a child and the next I was fearing for my life during a sexual assault. I chose to keep my child and became a mother at just 13.”
As the ugly truth hung in the air, the silence was broken only when this beautiful woman seemed to accept what she had said out loud and continued revealing her journey of highs and lows. “After being placed in foster care, my social worker contacted my school and my saving angel, Dr. Ann Clark-McKay, adopted me and my son. I’m afraid to imagine where I’d be today without her. She taught me about life, money, and how to be an entrepreneur, but mostly, she taught me about Christ, faith and forgiving.” With support from Ponchatoula High School and Clark-McKay’s guidance, Tyra defied the odds and overcame her obstacles to successfully complete high school. “On graduation night, she gave me a cerificate reading One Silver Dollar that was obviously worth more than a dollar. ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re only worth face value,’ she said. I still have that one dollar bill as a reminder to believe in myself.”
Tyra’s determination to shine grew as she enrolled at Southeastern at 17 to study social work. She had her own place, and with the support of Clark-McKay, was able to raise her son. “By then my mother was clean and I was blessed to have two wonderful women in my life.” Tyra’s life-changing trauma compelled her to become a tireless advocate for others in need. She became the youngest board member of Tangipahoa CASA and a founding board member of Safe Place, offering designated drop-off places for mothers to bring babies they are unable to keep. Her work with literacy programs even earned her an audience with President George Bush, Sr.
After following her mother’s advice of helping others while following her own dreams, Tyra’s star shone in business as it had in advocacy. “When I was working in hospitality in New Orleans, I became the Executive Director of the French Quarter Business Association. I learned my job was more than throwing parties and encompassed the bigger picture of tourism for the city. Representing a historical district introduced me to politics where I worked with the mayor, police chief, unions, the city council, and business leaders, and learned from amazing mentors such as New Orleans City Councilmember at Large Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, Drew Bevolo of Bevelo Gas and Electric Lights and Lois Sutton of Where Magazine. Even though I had been dragged through hell, they taught me that I was good enough to hold my chin up and work in those circles with people as powerful as themselves.”
Tyra’s career advanced and led to a high position at a nationally known network of restaurants and resorts where her love for hospitality and tourism blossomed. With this successful experience, she was empowered to embark on owning and running her own travel and events business. After returning to Louisiana, Tyra married her childhood best friend, Carl McGary. “My life experience led me to understand the value of true friendship and unconditional love.” That love would become a beacon for Tyra in dark times ahead.
In 2015, Tyra was involved in a near fatal car accident. Her broken body lay in a ditch in the wreckage after an impact so forceful that it mangled the car and ruptured her breast implants. While attending to her injuries, doctors found that she had breast cancer. Because her sister, A’Tiffa Wilson, also struggled with breast cancer and ultimately lost her battle, Tyra chose to undergo a double mastectomy in hopes of increasing her chances of survival. “A’Tiffa was my best friend – so proud of me and always encouraging. She was the only person in the world that knew all I had been through, so it was very hard to lose that connection.”
Even with her successes, validations and fulfilling marriage, her sister’s death, her own hardships and her illness caused Tyra to retreat into extreme privacy. Through that time of sadness and soul-searching, Tyra couldn’t forget her sister’s words of advice. “A’Tiffa had told me to stop hiding from myself. She said I had a story to tell—one that needed to be shared. But I was afraid. Afraid that I had to look and be perceived in a certain way to be deemed successful and accepted.” When Reverend John E. Hurst, Jr., the pastor at Tasker Memorial AME Zion Chapel, asked her to be a guest speaker at a service in the fall of 2019, Tyra knew it was time to face that fear. “I built great courage by praying and thinking about my sister and was led to write about my favorite Bible verse, Phillipians, Chapter 4. The message is: Don’t be your past. Look ahead to God’s gifts that are waiting for you.”
Tyra’s motivation for finding her voice and telling her story is to gift those who hear it with the benefit of her experience and hard-earned wisdom. “After my childhood experience of not knowing if, or how, I was going to live, I was determined to not be a product of my environment, circumstance or the people who hurt me. I needed to forgive everyone from my mother to my abusers. The minute you blame and hold on to the negative, you die. I couldn’t let myself hate. It wasn’t easy, but I continued to love myself and walk in my faith.” Facing her fear has resulted in an unexpected gift for Tyra also. “People I’ve known for years told me they were proud and had no idea I was holding all that in. All that time, I didn’t need to put up a front, I just needed to be myself. All those hours pushing and advocating weren’t wasted, but all I had to do was give that one little speech to help so many people. Initially I was gearing my message towards young girls, but I got feedback from all ages, men and women saying I inspired them – even the pastor. The response has made me want to share even more.”
Now that Tyra has found her own peace and happiness and is sharing it with others, she says she feels more alive than ever despite the fact that she is facing yet another life-threatening situation. “Even though I know I will continue to face challenges ahead, I feel like a new person. Before I hit the floor in the morning, I pray. My wonderful husband has seen me at my best and at my worst. He makes life fun and will break out into song and dance to lift my spirits. It’s unbelievable to have gone through so much at the age of 40. My son is a blessing from a horrible situation, my husband and I are expanding my business with an event center outside of Hammond, and I’ve decided to write a book called It Happens in Threes to continue to share my story in hopes that it will inspire many others.”
Tyra’s shining role in her own story comes not from a place a pretense but as a true representation of her spirit, her talent, and her inner beauty. She embodies the determination to humbly and gratefully face any and all situations life throws at her with beauty as she rewrites her fate through faith, forgiveness and perseverance. She is not simply a survivor – she is a star.
Tyra Brown McGary, CMP is the owner of Encore Events & Travel. For more information, please call 504-756-1333, email [email protected] or visit encoretrips.com.