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Alaska philanthropist Mary Louise Rasmuson dies

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published July 31, 2012

Mary Louise Rasmuson died Monday at her home in Anchorage. She was 101.

The widow of the late banker and former Anchorage Mayor Elmer E. Rasmuson had been prominent in Alaska cultural and philanthropic life since moving here in 1962, with contributions to social services, health care and the arts.

Among her most enduring legacies is the Anchorage Museum, of which she was a major supporter -- from arranging the loan of art and artifacts in 1967, before a museum building existed, to the grand opening of its multi-million dollar expansion in 2010.

The daughter of a Pittsburgh businessman and a young French immigrant, she received many honors from her adopted state. She was a member of the inaugural class of the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame in 2009 and, this year, received the University of Alaska Anchorage Meritorious Service award.

But had she never set foot in Alaska, the story of the first half of her life -- during which she became one of the first members of the Women's Army Corps and rose to the rank of colonel, selected as commandant of the corps by two presidents -- would make a book.

MILITARY MOVER

Born in East Pittsburgh, Pa., on April 11, 1911, Mary Louise Milligan enrolled in Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, Carnegie Mellon University's women's college, and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in education. A press release from the Rasmuson Foundation noted that the faculty included "professors who were forerunners of the feminist movement. Students were encouraged to take charge of their lives, to speak out for what was right and to demand excellence in all they aspired to do."

From 1932 to 1942 she was employed by the Forest Hills School District, near Pittsburgh, where she worked in positions ranging from secretary to teacher, counselor and, finally, assistant principal. She earned a master's degree in school administration from the University of Pittsburgh.

When America entered World War II, she enlisted in the women's corps as a private -- or "auxiliary" as the rank was known -- and was one of 400 selected for what was then an experiment in using women as military professionals.

Tapping her educational background, the Army made her director of the WAC Training Center in Des Moines, Iowa, a position she held throughout the war and until 1946, when she became an officer with the General Staff of the Department of the Army. The next year she was promoted to WAC deputy director, a position she held during the Korean War. She became the WAC Staff Advisor to the Army's commanding general in Europe in 1952 and, in 1957, President Eisenhower appointed her director of the WAC.

IMPROVED MORALE

An official Army history of the women's corps notes that she came to the job at a time when morale was suffering in part because of limited advancement for WACs and the widespread perception that Army service was less glamorous and purposeful than other military service.

"In her civilian life and military duties, Colonel Milligan had gained experience in public relations. She was an accomplished speaker and had a keen sense of the appropriate -- the right word and action at the right time," the history says.

Milligan traveled widely, emphasizing the pride WACs should take in their history and individual contributions. If Milligan found that a commander had lost the respect of the women under her, the officer was "summarily relieved."

She "successfully pushed to amend the laws that deprived women of service credit and benefits."

She was reappointed to the position by President Kennedy in 1961.

Cold War tensions rose that spring with the Berlin crisis. America's military went on alert. "(Milligan) told her staff that she would not request any exceptions for WACs during the buildup and would maintain peacetime standards for entry and retention." She did not suspend the rule that let a woman leave the Army upon getting married, but did support a change that let commanders retain an enlisted women for 90 days beyond her designated discharge date to help train replacements.

On Nov. 4, 1961, she married Elmer Rasmuson, chairman of the National Bank of Alaska and a civilian aide in Alaska to the secretary of defense. Rasmuson's first wife, Lile, had died the previous year.

PROPOSED BIG CHANGE

Col. Rasmuson -- she changed her name upon wedding -- announced that she would retire as of July 31, 1962. The Corps turned 20 that year, and she had been part of it from the start. But before leaving, she chalked up one more notable achievement. Women, still restricted to non-combat situations, found that they were unable to serve in service-type units that, while not in combat, nonetheless had contingency plans for combat. A gender coding system left commanders with no way to request WACs even for non-combat assignments or stations.

In January 1962 a proposed regulation change was being vetted in the Pentagon. "Colonel Rasmuson seized the opportunity to recommend that a code be added to designate spaces that could be filled interchangeably by either a man or a woman," according to the history. Her recommendation was approved.

Among numerous medals she received was the Legion of Merit with two oak leaf clusters, which, the Rasmuson Foundation said, was awarded for her efforts to integrate the corps.

CIVIC PATRON

In 1962, a civilian once more, Mary Louise Rasmuson moved to Anchorage with her husband. The new state faced an uncertain future and, for an officer who had seen duty in the great cities of Europe and Asia, Anchorage must have seemed like a frozen backwater. The city had perhaps 50,000 residents at the time.

She quickly became active in civic affairs. She was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and several other military organizations, the American Association of University Women, Zonta, Rotary Wives, Pioneers of Alaska, Anchorage Women's Club, League of Women Voters, Anchorage Republican Women's Club, Alaska Native Sisterhood and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among other groups.

She served on the boards of the Alaska Crippled Children's Association, the state and national American Cancer Society, Anchorage Fine Arts Commission and Anchorage March of Dimes.

Remembering Rasmuson in her WAC days, one of her colleagues, Brig. Gen. Elizabeth Hoisington, said, "She could come off the parade ground when the temperature was in the 90s and look cool and immaculate. She could step off a cross-country plane without one wrinkle in her skirt."

Her carriage impressed Alaskans as much as it had Hoisington. "She was profoundly elegant in her appearance and nature," said Sharon Gagnon, former president of the board of regents of the University of Alaska and former board member of the Rasmuson Foundation. "She just looked beautiful, always. She had all this wealth of experience and knowledge, but she was not at all someone who put herself before other people."

"She was innately a lady," said former legislator Clem Tillion, whose late wife, Diane, had known the Rasmuson family since childhood. "She was always thinking of the other person."

Gagnon described her as poised, a quality never more tested than after the Good Friday Earthquake in 1964. Elmer was mayor of the stricken city and the presence of the calm, determined, cheerful, blond, impeccably attired woman at his side, attending relief and reconstruction functions in the days that followed, went far toward assuring Anchorage residents that the community would survive the disaster.

MUSEUM EFFORT STARTS

In the early 1960s, the National Bank of Alaska had an extensive collection of Alaska artwork and the Cook Inlet Historical Society had hundreds of artifacts. But there were few opportunities for the public to see them.

While Elmer was still mayor, the Rasmusons led the effort to build a museum. The building went up on a vacant city-owned lot in 1968. Mary Louise helped arranged the displays, essentially loans of artwork and memorabilia, and played a large role in funding and directing the institution through the years.

Today, the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center holds what is arguably the state's largest permanent collection of paintings and sculptures by leading Alaska artists. A recent state-of-the-art, multi-million-dollar expansion houses a treasure trove of Native Alaskan pieces from the Smithsonian Institution.

Mary Louise spoke at the official opening in 2010, but Elmer did not live to see the completion of their vision. He died in 2000 at the age of 91.

"She always missed him," Gagnon said.

From the beginning of the Rasmuson Foundation, also in the 1960s, she served on the board of directors, helping direct grants to nonprofit groups in Alaska, which have now totaled more than $200 million. "Her contributions have reached every corner of Alaska," said her stepson, Ed Rasmuson, chairman of the foundation.

ACTIVE LATE IN LIFE

She regularly attended board meetings until her late 90s and retained a lively interest in its operations until her final days, said Diane Kaplan, president of the foundation.

Her other charitable interests ranged from health care to the homeless to Native culture to scouting. There is an Elmer and Mary Louise Rasmuson Center for Rheumatic Disease at the Benaroya Research Institute of Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, and the Elmer and Mary Louise Rasmuson Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. In 2000, the couple received the Medal for Distinguished Philanthropy from the American Association of Museums.

She was one of the first two women awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from the Carnegie Institute of Technology. ("The other," she noted in biographical information submitted to The Anchorage Times in 1963, "was Helen Hayes.")

In 1960, she was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania for her military service.

A lifelong Catholic, she made gifts to build Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Anchorage and was a benefactor of Holy Rosary Academy.

Kaplan said that two weeks before her death, Rasmuson had met with the new University of Alaska Anchorage Rasmuson Chair in Economics and with a group of women veterans starting a social service organization.

"She was a true leader," Gagnon said. "She led with intelligence. She was very thoughtful and tended to listen a lot. But she spoke with great firmness."

"You wouldn't call her soft, but she was always kind," said Tillion. "And look at her life. Back when women didn't do those things, Mary Louise was leading the way."

Funeral Mass Sept. 10

The community is invited to a funeral mass on Sept. 10 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, according to the Rasmuson Foundation. Additional details will be forthcoming.

By MIKE DUNHAM

Anchorage Daily News

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