Alaska’s ‘grand lady’ remembered for service to church and humanity

Mary Louise Rasmuson dies at age 101 

By EFFIE CALDAROLA, CatholicAnchor.org
Mary Louise Rasmuson

Mary Louise Rasmuson was in many ways a larger-than-life figure, a Catholic whose generosity and faithfulness greatly benefited the Catholic Church in Alaska. She was a highly successful professional woman before that became the norm and a philanthropist who influenced the entire state.

But it was her humanity and spirituality that Archbishop Roger Schwietz recalled when he spoke of her, following her death at age 101 on July 30.

“To me she was a model of clear thinking and determination as well as one of great faith,” Archbishop Schwietz told the Catholic Anchor. “I think it is out of her faith that she did so much for others to help promote the dignity of the human person. She valued good education and good art as well as charitable service, all working together for the good of people.”


As the widow of Alaskan businessman Elmer Rasmuson, whose family owned National Bank of Alaska, she was a guiding force in the Rasmuson Foundation, the state’s leading philanthropic institution.

A Catholic, whe was always a keen supporter of her parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Rasmuson had recently donated $1.25 million to the parish to help complete financing for the new church building on Wisconsin Drive in Spenard. Rasmuson attended the parish through the years when it gathered for Mass in a multi-purpose room before the new Spanish-style church was erected, and she spoke to the Catholic Anchor in 2010 about the motivations behind her donations.

She emphasized that she was making her latest gift public because she wanted others to consider their own stewardship commitment to their parishes.

“It’s our future,” she said at the time. “Do it for the young people.”

The young people at Holy Rosary Academy were a special focus of Rasmuson’s generosity, and they reciprocated with a great love for her, said Principal Catherine Neumayr.

“She was an unwavering supporter of our school,” Neumayr noted. “She became like family to the kids.”

The students made a CD of all their music as a gift to Rasmuson, and each year elementary students would send Christmas and birthday cards.

When a choir of five high school students went to Rasmuson’s home to serenade her, Neumayr said their benefactor took the time to tell them of her own experiences and of the importance of education.

“She was such a lady, and so genteel,” Neumayr recalled. Rasmuson’s yearly $50,000 matching gift to Holy Rosary’s annual auction moved school parents to stretch to make sure that goal was reached.

“Last year, it took about 12 minutes for us to raise almost $100,000,” said Neumayr, “because her gift was such an inspiration to parents.”

Rasmuson was also a strong supporter of Catholic Social Services. Susan Bomalaski, executive director of that agency, said Rasmuson “had a special place in her heart for our homeless guests at Brother Francis Shelter.”

As a board member of the Rasmuson Foundation, and through her own private donations, “Mary Louise Rasmuson supported the programs of Catholic Social Services and demonstrated great compassion for the poor,” Bomalaski said.

Until very recently, Rasmuson faithfully attended CSS’ Charity Ball, the agency’s premier social fund-raising event.


Rasmuson’s story has been told in numerous media reports, becoming something of an Alaskan pioneer legend. A Pennsylvania native, the daughter of an Irish-American father and a French immigrant mother, the young Mary Louise Milligan first studied education and considered venturing into law.

But World War II set her on a different path. She once told the Catholic Anchor that she “saw no reason why men should be required to serve while women had no obligation to do so.” She was among 440 women chosen out of 30,000 applications for the first Officer Candidate School for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. What followed was a meteoric rise through the ranks.

During the war, she served as an adviser to the U.S. commander-in-chief of the Army European Command and experienced London in the middle of the German air war. By 1957 she was director of the Corps and knew personally some of the leading figures of the day, including Dwight Eisenhower and later President John F. Kennedy who appointed her to her second term as director.

But then, at age 50, Rasmuson’s life took a distinct turn. In 1961 she married Elmer Rasmuson, a widower who was a leader in Alaskan financial and political circles. She retired from the Corps in 1962, but, always the pioneer, she first helped craft regulations at the Pentagon that gave women greater opportunities for assignments within the military.

Rasmuson seemed to easily make the transition from an office at the Pentagon to a stately home in Anchorage’s Turnagain neighborhood. She served as Anchorage’s first lady when Elmer was mayor after the 1964 earthquake, and until Elmer’s death in 2000, she served with him in numerous civic ventures, including the founding of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. She continued to be active with the Rasmuson Foundation.

Archbishop Schwietz became a personal friend, and he valued the association.

“I found her to be kind and gentle — a grand lady — but also someone who was decisive and capable. I will miss her now that the Lord has called her home, but I’m grateful for the conversations I had with her,” he said, adding, “May we follow her good example.”

A funeral Mass for Mary Louise Rasmuson will be held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Sept. 10, at 2 p.m.

Archbishop Schwietz will celebrate the Mass. Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley is scheduled to give a blessing.

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