WSU names new Mount Vernon headhouse for Ruth Wylie, groundbreaking alumna

Touring future headhouse
WSU alumnae Nancy Kercheval, left, and Ruth Wylie tour the future headhouse at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center at Mount Vernon, with center Director Carol Miles. This new space, built with support from Kercheval, is being named for her mother Wylie, a pioneering Skagit Valley woman.


Washington State University alumna Ruth Wylie broke new ground in public service as Skagit County’s first woman commissioner and county treasurer.

A new support facility opening this spring at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center (NWREC) at Mount Vernon is being named for Wylie, built through a donation from her daughter, Nancy Kercheval (1979, B.S., Agricultural Economics).

The new Ruth Wylie Head House serves as a workspace and research hub for discoveries improving soil health and regional agriculture. It was partly funded through a $150,000 gift from Kercheval.

Kercheval’s gift leveraged a matching challenge from Skagit County to grow the impact of economic development funding. The Board of Commissioners acknowledged her gift and approved an additional $150,000 to support the new building at the Center.

“As farming changes, we need crops and methods that are suited for the Skagit Valley,” Wylie said. “That’s what WSU and the Extension service do through their research. This new building is a great honor that my daughter has helped realize for me.”

“It is an honor to partner with Nancy, her family, and Skagit County in building this valuable space,” said André-Denis Wright, Dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. “Through her commitment to the Skagit Valley, and her deep connection to WSU and agriculture in northwest Washington, Ruth embodies our institution’s land-grant legacy. New research advances made possible by this gift are a tribute to her courage and dedication.”

Tour building exterior
Kercheval, Wylie, and Miles tour construction of the new headhouse.

Skagit Valley pioneer

Wylie, 92, grew up in Mount Vernon, Wash. Born to pioneer parents Harry and Eva Parker, she graduated from WSU in 1950 with a business degree. Wylie became business manager for United General Hospital (now PeaceHealth United General) in Sedro-Woolley, and was elected Skagit County Treasurer in 1979. After 13 years as treasurer, she served as Skagit County’s first woman County Commissioner.

As a Skagit Valley resident and commissioner, Wylie always felt highly of WSU’s local research and Extension center, noting its value to the economy of the Skagit Valley.

Her husband, dairy farmer Jack Wylie, was a longtime county commissioner, whose parents homesteaded and farmed on Fir Island from the early 1900s. Ruth and Jack were married more than 30 years; Jack passed away in 1999.

An accomplished pilot, Wylie took flying lessons in her ’50s. She and Jack (also a pilot) flew around the Northwest, visiting farms, islands, and aircraft shows. Passionate Cougars, the Wylies also traveled to football games across the country with their friends.

“All of us just loved the Cougs,” she said.

Wylie’s son Ron Kercheval, Jr., graduated from WSU, as did many of her and Jack’s numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Youngest of Ruth’s children, Nancy Kercheval received a WSU degree in agricultural economics in 1979. She made a successful career in the commercial fishing industry in the North Pacific, retiring in 2011.

“I admire my mother because of the risks she took to change her life, and make a better life for her children,” Kercheval said. “Her example helped me enter into non-traditional fields, run my own business, and never think twice about it.”

Recognizing the importance of research, Kercheval’s gift in her mother’s name supports ongoing efforts at the Mount Vernon research station.

“The idea for this gift came from my wanting to honor mom’s 90th birthday, and because we’re both WSU alumnae,” Kercheval said “Construction of the headhouse was an ideal project to support.”

Outside view of headhouse
The building, slated to open in spring 2021, supports greenhouse-based research into soil health, disease resistance, and other challenges for agriculture in Northwest Washington. Below, an interior view.

Supporting healthier soils, improved crops

The new Ruth Wylie Head House provides lab and office space for new scientists leading WSU’s statewide Soil Health Initiative, enabling the team to meet its research potential.

“Soil health and fertility are primary concerns for growers in Skagit County and beyond,” said Carol Miles, professor and director at NWREC.

The new building supports locally-based research for Northwest agriculture, including soil health assessments that help farmers understand and boost Skagit Valley’s soil quality, better soil management for potato and vegetable seed crops, and improved pollination and machine harvesting in blueberries.

“Space is a primary constraint at our Center, and has significant implications for both the timeliness and the quality of our research,” said Mount Vernon-based soil scientist Gabe LaHue. “This new space will really help us ensure the quality of our research and will allow us to continue to build our capacity.”

The headhouse is the first of a two-part upgrade at NWREC, which is home to one of the oldest plant growth facilities still in use at WSU research stations, built in 1947 when the original station was opened.

“We are very grateful to our donor, Nancy, to Ruth, and to our partners in Skagit County for making these new facilities possible,” Miles said. “Construction would not have happened without their involvement and support.”

“It’s been a great experience for me to be able to do this for my mom,” Kercheval said. “Now, I challenge other Cougs to seek the same opportunities. What better gift can you give a parent?”