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Mary Louise Rasmuson, Alaska philanthropist, military pioneer dies at age 101

Anchorage - Mary Louise Milligan Rasmuson, social catalyst and one of Alaska’s most endeared philanthropists, died on July 30, 2012, at her home in Anchorage, Alaska.

Intelligent. Diplomatic. Principled and ethical. Gentle but firm. Mrs. Rasmuson spent her life breaking barriers, challenging conventions, and seeking to improve opportunities for those around her.

She was a trailblazer for women and left her mark across the country and the state of Alaska through her leadership, philanthropy, and the family foundation that she helped lead with her late husband Elmer.

Selected from the initial pool of 30,000 applicants for the new Women’s Army Corp (WAC), she rose quickly through the ranks and in 1957 became the fifth commandant of the WAC, a position she occupied for six years, first appointed by President Eisenhower and reappointed by President Kennedy.

“We are fortunate to have had Mary Louise in our family,” said Ed Rasmuson, step-son and chairman of Rasmuson Foundation. “We are also fortunate that she loved Alaska.”

“Mary Louise's impact can be felt in virtually everywhere in our state, whether improving the position of families, founding a world-class museum, enhancing research in healthcare, and advancing understanding of Alaska Native cultures on a national stage. Her contributions have reached every corner of Alaska, from Ketchikan to Gambell.”

Mrs. Rasmuson arrived in Alaska in 1962 after her marriage to Elmer E. Rasmuson, chairman of National Bank of Alaska. Together, they formed a formidable team influential in the public and civic agenda in a rapidly developing city and state. She quickly adapted to life in Alaska and became active in several community groups.

Perhaps her most visible impact on Alaska came from her service as head of the Municipality of Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Commission and later as chair of the Anchorage Museum Foundation. Her vision, passion and personal effort led to the creation of the Anchorage Museum of Art and History in 1968. Two years ago, Mrs. Rasmuson helped to cut the ribbon on the latest expansion of the museum, now named the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, a culminating moment in her decades-long vision to build a great museum for all Alaskans.

In 1967, Mrs. Rasmuson began what would become 45 years of service on the board of Rasmuson Foundation. She maintained an active voice in the affairs of the Foundation and regularly attended board meetings until her late 90s, when she transitioned to an emeritus position. Even in the last years of her life, Mrs. Rasmuson received briefings from Foundation staff on projects seeking Foundation support.

“Just two weeks ago, Mary Louise met with the new University of Alaska Anchorage Rasmuson Chair in Economics, and with a group of women veterans who are starting a social service organization. She offered sage advice and support to both,” said Diane Kaplan, president of Rasmuson Foundation.

In addition to helping direct more than $200 million in grants to Alaska nonprofit organizations through the Foundation, she expressed her personal philanthropy to institutions like Providence Healthcare in Alaska, Brother Francis Shelter, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. A lifelong Catholic, she made a leadership gift to build Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Anchorage and was a benefactor of Holy Rosary Academy.

Facilities that bear her name include the Elmer and Mary Louise Rasmuson Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC), the Elmer & Mary Louise Rasmuson Center for Rheumatic Disease at the Benaroya Research Institute of Virginia Mason Hospital (Seattle, Wa), and the Mary Louise Rasmuson Pavilion at the Boy Scouts of America Camp Gorsuch (Chugiak, Ak).

Mrs. Rasmuson was born in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 11, 1911. Her father, George Milligan, was a local man who died when she was 12. Her mother, Alice, emigrated from France at the age of 16. Mrs. Rasmuson remained close to her mother and her brothers, George and Malcolm, for the rest of their lives.

Mrs. Rasmuson aspired to higher education at a time when many leading universities did not admit women. She enrolled in the Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, Carnegie Mellon University’s women’s college, which featured both an emphasis on home economics and 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 that they aspired to do. Mrs. Rasmuson applied that philosophy broadly. She graduated there with a bachelor’s degree in education, and later earned a master’s in school administration from the University of Pittsburgh.

In 1942, as the United States entered World War II, Mrs. Rasmuson left her job as an assistant principal in a school district near Pittsburgh and became a member of the first class of the new WAC.

As director of the WAC unit, military historians credit her with major achievements including increasing the WAC’s strength, insisting on effectiveness in command, working with Congress to amend laws that deprived women of service credit and benefits, and expanding the range of military opportunities open to women.

Mrs. Rasmuson retired in 1962 after 20 years of military service, during which she received a Legion of Merit award with two oak leaf clusters for her work integrating black women into the WAC. She was also awarded the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Occupation Medal and National Defense Medal. At an event honoring her, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry said, “When you hear about women seizing new opportunities to serve, remember that they march behind Colonel Rasmuson.”

Mrs. Rasmuson was one of the first two women awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and in 2009 was inducted into the inaugural class of the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2012 she received the University of Alaska Anchorage Meritorious Service award and the Inaugural Alaska Veterans Organization for Women Achievement Award. She was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania in 1960. In 2000, she and Elmer were bestowed the American Association of Museums Medal for Distinguished Philanthropy.

Mrs. Rasmuson’s oral history of the WAC unit, World War II and the Korean War is among those recorded by The Library of Congress for The Veteran’s History Project.

Mrs. Rasmuson remained active with many organizations and most recently had been serving as honorary chair and patron of the Veterans’ Memorial Project, a campaign to revitalize the Veterans' Memorial on the Delaney Park Strip in Anchorage.  She has also served on the national board of American Cancer Society, U.S. Army Alaska Citizen’s Advisory Committee, and led the Anchorage March of Dimes Campaign. She was affiliated with Zonta, American Association of University Women, Alaska Native Sisterhood, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Virginia Mason Board of Governors, Palm Springs Desert Museum and Seattle Art Museum, amongst many others. She was a lifetime member of Association of U.S. Army and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mrs. Rasmuson is survived by three step-children: Ed Rasmuson and wife Cathryn of Anchorage, Lile Gibbons and husband John of Old Greenwich, CT, and Judy Rasmuson of Florida; nephew Malcolm Milligan and wife Joyce; grandchildren Jay Gibbons, Jenny Forti, Amanda Baer, Adam Gibbons, David Rasmuson, Natasha von Imhof and Laura Emerson; and 12 great-grandchildren.

All are invited to attend a funeral mass September 10 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Additional details will be forthcoming.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial gifts be made to Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 625 C Street, Anchorage, AK, 99501.

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