Fresh out of college, on her own in a new state and in her first real job, Mary Kohli found herself learning fast about the humble arts of hearth and harvest.
A home economics graduate back in Delaware, Ohio, Mary had been hired over the phone as a Cooperative Extension agent in Denver, Colorado.
Newly arrived and tasked with helping Colorado families and homemakers solve urgent questions about food preservation, canning and baking, Mary had to admit that homemade preserves were outside her expertise.
“I’d never canned in my life,” recalled Mary. “I absolutely never had and never will!”
But, raised in a family of strong, independent women who prized education, Mary wasn’t afraid to work hard and ask questions. She drew her chair close to the seasoned senior agent, Jackie Anderson, and listened as Anderson shared the secrets to baking great cakes in Colorado’s high mountain air, along with answers to many other home economics head-scratchers. In no time at all, Mary was on her way, helping families and 4-H leaders learn about everything from clothes-making and bread-baking to nutrition and health.
Knowledge for all
For more than 100 years, Extension agents like Mary have been unsung heroes of rural and urban America. With the resources and expertise of land-grant universities like WSU at their fingertips, Extension agents bring knowledge to the people.
In Mary’s case, that could mean subjects she knew a lot about, or topics she didn’t—like home canning. A quick study and a grand generalist, Mary could turn to a network of fellow experts when she didn’t know the answers.
Inspired to learn about Extension, leadership and personal development, Mary advanced her own education, coming to Washington and serving in district leadership positions for more than 25 years. She helped Extension agents across Washington improve lives and communities.
Today, she pays forward her success, and that of her late husband and fellow Extension leader Tom Quann, through scholarship donations and involvement in CAHNRS and other causes she cares deeply about.
“I grew up in a family where education was highly valued. It was simply assumed that I would seek an education, too.”
Prizing the gift of learning
Raised in Wheaton, Illinois, Mary’s parents were both highly active in their communities. Mary’s father, Orlin, was a professional, sought-after portrait photographer in the Chicago area, while her mother, Alice, was an elementary school teacher. Mary also connected with her four well-educated aunts, two with master’s degrees—one a music teacher, one a hospital administrator—and two of whom served in the military.
At first, Mary considered a career in clothing and retail. But her counselor at Ohio Wesleyan University knew she wasn’t cut out for the cloth trade and urged her into Cooperative Extension.
The Extension experience, she added, “really matured me. I was constantly learning, and gained so much from my colleagues. We became better leaders together.”
It was here in Washington that Mary met her husband, Tom. An alumnus of the then-Washington State College’s College of Agriculture, Tom devoted his career to WSU Cooperative Extension, retiring in 1987.
“Tom was very loyal to 4-H,” says Mary. “He was a 4-H member who was inspired to go to college, and was the first in his family to graduate.”
Tom’s family founded a WSU scholarship in his honor, benefiting 4-H students. After Tom’s death, Mary founded a scholarship in both their names helping deserving students. Today, she is establishing a new scholarship supporting learning opportunities for Extension faculty and staff.
Over the years, she and Tom, who passed away in 2013, helped students and staff gain educational opportunities they might not have experienced otherwise. When Mary retired in 1994, she asked her colleagues to skip gifts, and instead pool their contributions in the form of a team award for faculty and staff in the college. She then matched all that was given.
Last fall, Mary was honored as a Benefactor of the Washington State University Foundation for her and Tom’s contributions to Extension and CAHNRS.
“Education has always been very important for my family,” Mary said. “No matter what the age, I feel strongly that any person can learn—by reading, in classes, attending seminars, and belonging to organizations that provide education, such as the League of Women Voters, of which I’m a member.”
“I’m really proud to support opportunities for young people,” she added. “A formal education can give your work and personal life such a great boost.”