Mary Frances Burleson, 1935-2022: Longtime president and CEO of Ebby Halliday Cos. dies at 87

An icon of Dallas real estate has left us: Mary Frances Burleson, longtime president and CEO of the Ebby Halliday Companies. The Ebby Halliday Companies announced that Burleson, 87, died Sunday morning of natural causes.

November 28, 2022

Burleson famously began as the secretary of Mrs. Ebby Halliday, the company’s namesake founder, and rose to become the company’s president and CEO. She led the company through tremendous growth, leading in times of joy and sorrow, including the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, and the passing of the founder and her mentor, Ebby Halliday Acers, at the age of 104 in 2015.

There are few people in Dallas real estate who did not know Mary Frances Burleson. Every year, on their birthday without fail, Burleson would call each and every Ebby agent, sing “Happy Birthday,” and tell them how very appreciated they were.

Burleson was, like her mentor, one of the hardest-working women you could ever meet. But she also had a heart of absolute gold, a no-nonsense approach to life, the kind of stubbornness that made you chuckle (and give her the last word!), and was so proud of the company she and Ebby built.

Burleson played a pivotal role in the acquisition of the Ebby Halliday Companies by HomeServices of America in 2018. She was fiercely loyal and protective of the company where she worked for almost 60 years. She turned down numerous offers and bids to buy Ebby Halliday Realtors because she thought nothing was the right fit — until HomeServices of America came to her.

Though the company was sold, its structure was designed to give as much local control and decision-making to local management as possible. Today Ebby Halliday Companies’ independent real estate brokerages are locally operated by brokers who are deeply invested in the community. Burleson was an integral part of that plan and company vision.

The Black Hat and The White Hat

Tributes poured in on Facebook Sunday evening. According to Ebby Halliday’s Cody Baker, Burleson was the yang to Ebby Halliday’s ying.

“She always told the story about how early in her career, Ebby gifted her with her signature black hat – but on the condition that as a leader in the company, she would wear the proverbial black hat, while Ebby would wear the white one. Mary Frances did so proudly (she even put that black hat in a glass case in her office as a reminder), and it was a deal and partnership that would change the face of real estate.

“She said many times that when she was gone she didn’t want a lot of ‘fuss’ (remember, she always gets the last word),” Baker said. “Instead, she said anyone who felt inclined should go have a nice glass of red wine (and she emphasized nice), think of the good times you had with her, and toast. So for those of you reading this who feel inclined, those are your marching orders. Cheers to you, Mary Frances – our very own Ouiser Boudreaux, the Queen of the One-Liner, The Notorious MFB. You will be greatly missed.”

In a statement provided today, the company offered a glimpse into Mary Frances Burleson’s incredible life, background, and history — a history that encompassed an enormous era in Dallas real estate history. Like Ebby Halliday herself and a host of great past brokers, the growth of Dallas/Fort Worth and its tremendous housing supply was made possible by the gumption and passion of icons like Mary Frances Burleson — brokers who loved Dallas/Fort Worth, their communities, and their clients deeply with all their hearts. To them, real estate was not a business, but a calling that settled deeply in their blood and never left.

Mary Frances McClure was born on April 16, 1935. When she was a child, she moved with her parents to Highland Park, where she attended and then graduated from Highland Park High School and Southern Methodist University. Later in life, Mary Frances would frequently remark that the sacrifices her parents made to send her to great schools and expose her to exceptional teachers was one of the greatest gifts she had ever received. It was in 1958 that one small turn of events would set her on the path for the rest of her life. While attending SMU, Mary Frances worked for Jobs Unlimited, a temporary employment company. She was sent to Ebby Halliday REALTORS® as a part-time secretary and receptionist. Inspired by what she saw — sales associates who were enjoying and thriving in their careers — Mary Frances was eager to join the company permanently.

“My husband Rufus said that I had looked over the garden wall when I started working for Ebby Halliday and that I was never the same again,” she recalled. “Ebby mentored and helped many, many people to find their career path, and I was one of the fortunate ones.” Mary Frances’ talent was quickly recognized, and Ebby herself offered to make her position at the company permanent after just two weeks – at $2.50 per hour. She quickly rose through the ranks to management positions. She opened the fourth office for Ebby Halliday Realtors in Richardson and served as Regional Manager of four additional offices. In 1979, she became Executive Vice President and General Sales Manager. In 1989, she was named President and in 2000 added the title of Chief Executive Officer. Mary Frances and Ebby would work side by side for 57 years, during which time they also became close personal friends. When once asked for her best business advice, her answer was quick: “Find a good mentor, but don’t forget to return the favor.” For nearly three decades, Mary Frances was at the helm of the Ebby Halliday Companies as President and CEO.

She helped to expand the firm to 1,700 agents in 35 offices across three brands, becoming the largest independent residential real estate brokerage in Texas, and the 10th-largest in the nation. Mary Frances quickly and always described herself as “an Ebby girl through and through” and continuing the legacy of the company’s admired founder became her life’s mission. But she also forged a unique leadership path of her own – one that was best summed up with her popular mantra, “Get up, suit up and show up.” She both preached and personified this mantra over her 60+ years with Ebby Halliday.

She helped steer the company through the good times as well as through downturns and recessions, through key acquisitions and new market expansions, investing in and adopting the latest technology, hiring the best people – and training and promoting them to leadership positions, and more. Through her and her team’s vision, the Ebby Halliday Companies was one of the first to explore and create the core services business lines of mortgage, insurance and title to both support the company, and, more importantly, provide the most seamless and complete real estate experience to clients – something most other companies are just starting to explore.

Just like her mentor Ebby Halliday, Mary Frances firmly believed that she never did anything alone. She was always quick to credit the team when accepting praise or awards – by her definition that team included the leadership and management teams around her, as well as every Sales Associate and staff member who comprised the Ebby Halliday Companies. In her free time – and something she became known for – she would personally call each Sales Associate and staff member on their birthday and sing the entirety of the “Happy Birthday” song – whether she was out of town, or their birthday fell on a holiday, she made her calls. It started innocently in the early 1990s and quickly became expected. She would continue this tradition with all 2,000+ members of the company until her retirement in 2020, eventually incorporating texts instead of calls to stay current with the times. But each one was hand-typed. She was also a voracious reader of business books, and frequently gave her staff and others copies of her favorites.

Mary Frances embraced Ebby Halliday’s service mindset – service to the client, service to the industry, and service to the community. Throughout her career, she was heavily involved at the local, state and national levels within the real estate industry. And through her commitment to such groups as the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the International Women’s Forum, the Baptist Foundation of Texas, Buckner International, the board of directors of SMU’s Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series, Highland Park Education Foundation’s board of directors, and many more, she helped make the communities of North Texas a better place.

As one would expect, Mary Frances’ leadership and involvement resulted in innumerable awards and accolades. Some highlights include: REALTOR® of the Year by the MetroTex Association of REALTORS® and the Texas Association of REALTORS®, induction into the RPAC Hall of Fame at the highest level (and at the time, a level created especially for her), regular appearances on the Swanepoel Power 200 “Top 20 Women Leaders in Residential Real Estate” list, RISMedia’s National Homeownership Award, the Dallas Business Journal’s Women in Business Award, Dallas Business Journal’s Most Admired CEOs honoree, D CEO’s Residential Real Estate Executive of the Year award, and Highland Park Independent School District’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Perhaps one of Mary Frances’ most-prized awards came in 2013 when she was honored with the National Association of REALTORS®’ Distinguished Service Award, the organization’s highest honor, and the highest honor a REALTOR® can receive. She was selected as one of two winners that year from 1 million REALTORS® based on her contributions to the real estate industry and being among those recognized as leaders in their local communities. Her proudest part of the award however was that she was the third REALTOR® from the Ebby Halliday Companies (along with Ebby Halliday and Posey Willis) to receive the coveted award, a first for the industry.

“I am honored and grateful to accept the Distinguished Service Award,” Burleson said in a press release at the time. “I am also extremely fortunate to be part of a profession and organization that values service to others. REALTORS® have a common goal to help build strong communities and work toward improving people’s quality of life; this is something I strongly believe in and have strived for throughout my career in real estate.”

When asked to describe a moment in her life that shaped her future, her answer obviously included meeting Ebby Halliday in 1958, but on a personal level, it was marrying the love of her life in 1955, Rufus C. Burleson. The two were true soulmates and were married for over 50 years until his sudden death in 2009. Mary Frances and Rufus started exhibiting show dogs – Boxers – in 1964, something she became even more passionate about after Rufus’ passing. It became important to her to continue his legacy in the dog world, and true to form, Mary Frances delivered.

To date, Marburl Boxers (the name of the kennel the Burlesons owned and managed – a combination of “Mary” and “Burleson”) have completed championships for more than 100 dogs and won countless other awards both nationally and internationally, including a Lifetime Achievement Award for Mary Frances and Rufus from the American Boxer Club. And expect more Marburl champions to come – Mary Frances would always comment (with her signature grin) how she was “dreaming and scheming” with her handler and friend Lori Ferguson for more awards.

She also regularly updated a running list of future dog names for her prized bloodline – stored in her iPhone, of course. Mary Frances reflected on the downside of her dog hobby, which she also related to life: “Dogs give you a great deal of joy and a great deal of heartache. When you lose a dog, you cry buckets. Humans don’t live forever either, but while we have each other, we have joy … I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for the experiences I have had.”

In addition to being a courageous, bold leader who embraced the principles of honor and integrity, Mary Frances was a woman of remarkable faith. A longtime member of Park Cities Baptist Church, Mary Frances especially enjoyed the fellowship she experienced, and the friends she made over the years in her congregation and in her Sunday School class. Mary Frances Burleson was an extraordinary woman who dedicated her life to service on every level. That dedication touched the lives of thousands of people across the North Texas community, the nation and beyond.

We at the Ebby Halliday Companies are forever grateful for her vision, for her leadership, and for her friendship. She is and will be greatly missed. We will share with you more details regarding her selected charitable causes and memorial services as we learn more in the coming days.