Meet Trailblazing Knight Mary Lou Rajchel ’72

FTU alumna Mary Lou '72 in the FTU yearbook

This is Part 3 of a three-part series spotlighting Trailblazing Knights, members of UCF’s first five graduating classes. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here

On April 8, the Trailblazing Knights will be honored at an on-campus event.

In 1968, Central Florida high school standout Mary Lou Rajchel ‘72 had her pick of colleges, but her interest was piqued by the brand-new Florida Technological University.

Growing up, Rajchel traveled the world because her father was in the military. She lived in Ethiopia for three and a half years from third through sixth grade. “It was an amazing opportunity and a wonderful learning experience,” she says. Despite the family’s frequent moves, Rajchel always excelled academically. She also sang, danced and played sports. She even performed during the summer of 1965 as a mermaid in an underwater show in Osage Beach, Missouri, complete with a grand entrance from a clam shell.

After Rajchel’s father retired from the military, the family settled in Winter Park Pines, and she attended Colonial High School. There, she ranked eighth in her senior class of more than 600 students and was the student council president. She was also Miss Teenage Central Florida and competed in the national Miss Teenage America pageant. She was named an Outstanding Teenager of America, attended Girls State and represented the state of Florida at Girls Nation, where she was Secretary of Labor.

That impressive resume could have been a ticket to just about anywhere, but Rajchel set her sights on Orlando’s new Hometown University.

“I was very intrigued by FTU once they made it clear that it was offering a broad-based education,” she says. “I liked the idea of going to a university that by its very nature and location was going to be a great university in the future. And it was a unique opportunity to be part of the framework and growth of a university…those things pulled me to FTU.”

Rajchel was involved with FTU “a little bit before the beginning.” She co-hosted orientations with fellow freshman Chris Schmidt and was among FTU’s first tour guides. When the university opened, she lived in one of the four residence halls and pursued a broad-based education with a major in English.

A natural leader, Rajchel was soon elected a student government senator and selected as the liaison for her residence hall.

“A group of us at FTU had been involved in leadership roles in our high schools,” she says. “So, we naturally fell into talking about the structure of things. We developed a framework of involvement in residence halls and student government, including the Student Government Constitution.”

Once FTU’s first Student Government Constitution was complete, it went before the students for a vote and was ultimately approved by President Millican.

“There were very talented people in a wide range of areas at FTU,” says Rajchel. “We were always building different organizations, working hard to help FTU grow in a meaningful way. You were asked to do all kinds of different things at different times.”

And when Rajchel was called upon to serve FTU, she always answered. She was the major chairman of FTU’s first annual Parent’s Day in 1969, and she was on the Social Affairs Committee for the Village Center. She also played a central role in building FTU’s Greek system.

“National sororities didn’t come onto campus until FTU was fully accredited,” she explains. “So, there was a two-year window where we developed local sororities. I was a charter member of Tyes. We developed the sorority, had rush and took in a pledge class. We helped structure the Greek system, and the sororities became very active on campus.”

During her four years at FTU, Rajchel was the sorority’s vice president, president, rush chairman, and then president again. She played on the Tyes intramural teams and was appointed by FTU to the Senior Greek Honorary. When Tyes joined the national Pi Beta Phi Fraternity in January 1981, Rajchel was initiated as an alumna.

Rajchel juggled her leadership roles and her classes with her continuing interest in musical performance. She furthered her lifelong love of singing and performing by taking formal voice lessons at FTU. She sang in recitals, in the chorus and at campus events. Along with classmates Brian Skadowski and Steve Hallauer, she was part of a trio called The Gentle Rain that sang around campus.

In the summer of 1969 after Rajchel’s freshman year, Disney launched its college relations program. Rajchel was one of seven students from FTU (and 28 students total) selected to participate.

The group spent two summers working at Disney Land in California, in preparation for potentially joining Walt Disney World (WDW) when it opened in Orlando in October 1971.

When the college relations group was asked what they wanted to do at WDW, if anything, Rajchel expressed an interest in entertainment. She auditioned and completed the Disney singer/dancer workshop. She was asked to audition for the Liberty Tree Tavern Singers, a five person acapella group, and was hired before WDW officially opened.

The Liberty Tree Tavern Singers sang in the park’s opening ceremonies, Liberty Square, the Castle, and on Main Street. At Christmas, they were the Charles Dickens Carolers.

FTU alumna Mary Lou as a Liberty Tree Tavern Singer at Disney

Mary Lou Rajchel (right) as a Liberty Tree Tavern Singer

Rajchel worked at the park full-time her first quarter, then as needed as she completed her studies. She graduated with FTU’s first four-year class on Friday, June 9, 1972.

“When I talk with anyone who went to FTU,” she says, “we all agree that we had a wonderful education there. We were gifted with fantastic professors, and we’re all very appreciative of the education we received. The camaraderie that developed was very, very special.”

After graduation, Rajchel completed another full-time summer at Walt Disney World, then attended graduate school at Southern Illinois University (Carbondale). She earned a Master of Science degree in higher education, college student personnel (administration and counseling), while working as a graduate student advisor.

Rajchel then worked for a year in resident student development at Florida State University before attending law school at FSU in 1975. There, she was a law review articles editor and a member of the moot court team. In 1977, Rajchel and her partner won the Florida Bar state competition, and Rajchel was awarded Outstanding Oral Advocate. She graduated with honors in 1978.

After graduation, Rajchel became the first female associate at the law firm Young, VanAssenderp, Varnadoe & Benton (previously Smith, Young and Blue). It was just one of many times she would blaze a trail for women in various professions and industries.

Rajchel went on to hold government positions, first as assistant general counsel at the Florida Department of Commerce, then as director of cabinet affairs for the Florida Department of Education under Commissioner Betty Castor. She was Castor’s chief advisor on all Cabinet-related regulatory and public policy issues.

“The responsibilities of the Governor and at that time six-member Cabinet extended through so much of the executive branch,” says Rajchel. “The breadth of issues they dealt with, and the range of my responsibilities, allowed me to learn a great deal about state government.” Among their duties, Cabinet Aides received field trips and briefings from various Florida industries, businesses, organizations and government agencies. In this role, Rajchel was appointed to serve on various commissions, councils and committees.

In 1992, Rajchel joined the Florida Phosphate Council, the trade association for the phosphate industry in Florida, as the vice president of regulatory affairs. In 1999, the Board of Directors elected Rajchel as the Council’s president and CEO. She was the first woman in both positions.

Rajchel went to Florida Tax Watch (FTW) in 2005 as the senior vice president for research and development. She had served on the FTW Board of Trustees for many years and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees today.

In 2006, Rajchel became the president and CEO of the Florida Trucking Association, the first woman to hold the role. The FTA was challenged amid an economic downturn. With her experience in essential industry and public/private partnerships, Rajchel brought stability and transformation to the organization. She even drove a truck in the 2007 FTA Annual Truck Driving Championship Executive Challenge.

During Rajchel’s tenure, the FTA was awarded the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce Association of the Year (2008) and the National ATA Truck Image Award (2010). Rajchel was recognized by the Tallahassee Democrat as one of the “25 Women You Should Know” in 2012.

When Rajchel retired in 2014, American Trucking Association’s President/CEO Bill Graves said, “The Florida Trucking Association was fortunate to find Mary Lou Rajchel. For the last seven-plus years, she’s done a great job bringing much needed stability to the organization while being a tireless advocate for the trucking industry in Florida” (Florida Truck News, Winter 2014).

Along the way, Rajchel has made time for philanthropy and other interests, including leadership, law, engineering and more. In her early years of practicing law, she served as secretary, treasurer, and board member of the Tallahassee Bar Association, and she was a founding member and past president of the Tallahassee Women Lawyers Association. She was a member of Leadership Florida’s class 16 in 1996-97, and later served as regional chair and government appointments chair. She is also a lifetime member.

Rajchel served on the Council for Sustainable Florida Board of Directors for many years and was a past President. From 1999-2009, she was a member of the FAMU/FSU College of Engineering Advisory Council Executive Committee, and she served for several years on the Second Harvest of the Big Bend Board of Directors. She remains a consistent supporter.

In 2006, Rajchel completed the Citizen’s Police Academy at the Tallahassee Police Department and currently serves on the Alumni Association Board of Directors. Last year, she was inducted as a Leon County Honorary Deputy Sheriff. She had previously served from 1987-1992 on the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission and was elected to serve as Chair in 1992.

Today, Rajchel is retired and remains very active in many organizations. For example, she was recently appointed to serve on the Oversight Board for the DeVoe Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at FSU. She continues to be an active member at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. She ballroom dances at the Tallahassee Fred Astaire Dance Studio and calls it her “holistic health program.”

Alumna Mary Lou Rajchel at the 2017 National Dance Championships

Mary Lou at the 2017 National Dance Championships in Orlando

On a personal note, Rajchel and her late husband, Gerald Jaski, are proud of their son Jay, his wife, their two grandchildren and their rescue dog, Bones.

Reflecting on her career, Rajchel says, “I look at my life in terms of all the opportunities I’ve had to learn and to do. The opportunities that have come my way have been truly remarkable. The work was fascinating and challenging, all the time. I always felt it a true privilege to represent government and essential major industries, and still do.”

UCF alumna Mary Lou Rajchel with President Cartwright

Mary Lou Rajchel with President Cartwright at the 2022 UCF Day at the Capitol

Throughout her life, Rajchel feels that one opportunity has always built on the next. Her educational process, she says, was no exception. “FTU provided so many opportunities, and a very challenging academic atmosphere. I appreciated the full range, the full spectrum of what I did in college. We put our heart and soul into all of it and cared deeply. We worked hard to make things happen, and it was a privilege to be part of that process.”

Rajchel adds, “When I think about all the formative roles that we held at FTU, where we learned so much in terms of working together, laying these foundations, and building upon them, I am grateful all the time.”

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