Women’s History Month: a lifelong learner inspires others to get involved

Mary Kohli
Mary Kohli, retired WSU Extension agent and scholarship founder, learned to prize education from the women in her family.

During Women’s History Month, WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences is sharing stories of how the women of our college find inspiration and pay it forward.

Retired WSU Extension educator, local volunteer, and scholarship supporter Mary Kohli helps Washingtonians gain knowledge and get involved to improve their communities.

“I love to encourage learning,” she said. “One of the greatest things about Extension is the lifelong learning it makes possible.”

For more than 100 years, Extension agents like Mary have helped Americans of all ages and walks of life access factual, research-based knowledge. Her roots as an agent began during childhood in Wheaton, Illinois, where her parents, elementary teacher Alice and professional photographer Orlin, expected their children, daughters included, to seek a college education.

“I was fortunate to grow up in a family in which education was highly valued,” Mary said. “Giving back was also important.”

Four well-educated aunts helped set the standard, including three who earned master’s degrees. Two served in the military, one joining the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the other the U.S. Navy’s Women’s Reserve (WAVES).

Mary’s older sister Dorothy volunteered with the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that encourages informed and active participation in elections and government. Dorothy’s example drew Mary into a lifetime of involvement.

“I started with the league informally 50 years ago,” she said. Mary remains active, helping register voters, serving as an independent election observer, and attending league meetings.

Fresh out of college with a home economics degree, Mary was steered by a college counselor into a career in cooperative extension. Over the phone, she landed her first job in Denver, Colorado, and admits she knew next to nothing about extension work on her first day. But Mary arrived ready to learn and educated herself throughout a successful career that led to positions of increasing responsibility at Washington State University. 

Breaking down inequities

“When I joined WSU Extension in 1969, there were, let’s face it, still some inequities,” Mary remembered.

Few women held administrative positions. In certain areas, “women could not wear slacks, only dresses,” Mary said. “In the Extension staff list, the men were listed first and in alphabetical order, and then the women. The women always had a Miss or Mrs. in front of their names.”

She worked for change, helping write the first equal employment opportunity plan for WSU Extension in the early 1970s. Pants were approved, and personnel lists became more equitable.

“We broke down some of those barriers, finally,” Mary said. “I worked with strong, competent women.”

She was inspired by colleagues like Damaris Bradish, former state leader of the Extension family living program, most recently associate director of WSU Extension, and Extension administrative team member Barbara Scott. Scott, Mary recalled, “was firm in her decisions but caring about people. A positive person, someone you could look to, to be fairly treated.”

Aiding WSU learners

In Washington, Mary met her husband, Tom Quann, an alumnus of the then-Washington State College’s agriculture program. Tom devoted his career to WSU Cooperative Extension, retiring in 1987.

Mary, who retired in 1994, established with her husband and family two endowments aiding deserving students: the Tom Quann 4-H Scholarship and the Thomas R. Quann & Mary A. Kohli Scholarship Endowment. The Quann-Kohli scholarship fund is especially created to help first-generation college students or scholars in difficult circumstances.

“I feel very strongly about education,” Mary said. “I like to see people continue to learn, whether it’s classes, reading, or other opportunities. That’s why the League of Women Voters appeals so strongly to me.”

Through her volunteerism and her support for scholarships at WSU, Mary continues to encourage neighbors, friends, and learners of all ages to take an interest in their communities, find opportunities, and make their voices heard.

“I hope that I’m inspiring other women,” she said.

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