As a Tampa International Airport 14-year Traffic Specialist veteran, Merry Jo Carper has seen and heard it all. But then, that’s just the way her life has always been.
Born and raised in the tiny, rural borough of Huntingdon, Penn., Merry Jo was struck by a car at age 7 while trying to cross an unfamiliar road with her friend. She survived with the help of a steel plate and nine bolts in her head, and the accident shook up the town enough for the local newspaper to write an anniversary story about it 50 years later.
“I died in the ambulance and died on the operating table,” Merry Jo said. “So I like to joke that I’m one of the living dead.”
The daughter of a custodian father and a homemaker mother, Merry Jo grew up to enjoy working and helping people, always holding a steady job and several side jobs for fun. She worked at a printing company for 22 years, running the machines, proofreading, setting up and burning printing plates and other duties. She also delivered flowers, and for some time she dressed up as a gorilla and delivered balloons.
She also spent 15 years working as a clown named Twinkles, making balloon arches and performing at children’s birthday parties.
“I still have the clown outfit and the big shoes,” Merry Jo said. “Try to walk in those things going up steps.”
After the printing company where she worked was sold to other owners, Merry Jo found herself looking for other means of income. That’s when her sister, a nurse who lives in Tampa, convinced Merry Jo to leave Huntingdon and move to Florida.
She got a job at the airport as a security guard for Continental Airlines reservations until a couple of Airport Police officers convinced her to apply for a job with the Aviation Authority as a Traffic Specialist. She was thrilled when she was offered a position.
“I promised to give 110 percent because they were taking a chance on me,” Merry Jo said.
She immediately loved interacting with the passengers and their families and friends, even on their worst days. Merry Jo – who goes by “Jo-Jo” to her co-workers – has comforted grieving children and helped confused visitors find their way. She has seen a lot of tears and a lot of tantrums, but she’s also encountered a lot of kind people, too, she said. Her supervisors often receive written compliments and praise about Merry Joe from guests.
In her free time, Merry Jo stays very active in her church choir and has a beautiful singing voice. She also likes to make ornaments and other crafts out of seashells, and she often visits one of her best friends – a 97-year-old former neighbor who now lives in an assisted living facility.
Merry Jo said she used to be a very quiet and shy person, but “this job has kind of pulled me out of my shell.”
“I’ve learned a lot from working at the airport,” she said. Even more than 50 years later, Merry Jo feels grateful she survived her childhood accident, and even chuckles at her own story line.
“She gets hit at age 7 in traffic and then winds up working in traffic,” Merry Jo said. “I thank God every day … I’m living proof that you can survive anything.”