Mary Louise Rasmuson receiving the rank of colonel in 1957.
Published: August 4, 2012
Her death was confirmed by her family.
Mrs. Rasmuson was working as an assistant principal near Pittsburgh when World War II began. Her two brothers, George and Malcolm, had both joined the military, and Mrs. Rasmuson, eager to find a way to serve, became one of about 400 original officers selected for what was initially called the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.
She spent her early years training new members at Fort Des Moines in Iowa, though at 5-foot-2 she struggled to match her marching stride with the rhythm of others at parades.
“I know music well enough to be aware when I’m out of step,” she told The New York Times many years later, after she was appointed director, “but my legs won’t stretch that far.”
In 1948, the corps was renamed and made a permanent part of the Army. Women were not allowed in combat roles, but their responsibilities gradually increased. They became aircraft mechanics, trained men in sending code, rigged parachutes and worked as cryptologists in the cold war. Mrs. Rasmuson spent four years in Europe as an Army adviser before President Dwight D. Eisenhower named her director of the corps in 1957. President John F. Kennedy reappointed her in 1961.
She received high praise from her male superiors and won multiple honors and awards, including a Legion of Merit award for her work in integrating black women into the corps.
Her life changed in 1961 when she met Elmer Rasmuson, who was visiting Washington as Alaska’s civilian aide to the Army. Mr. Rasmuson, the son of Swedish missionaries, was the chairman of the National Bank of Alaska. Someone thought to seat them together at a dinner.
They married later that year, and in 1962 Mrs. Rasmuson left the corps and moved to Alaska to join her new husband.
Mr. Rasmuson, whose first wife, Lile, died of cancer in 1960, had already been an active philanthropist, sharing his family’s growing fortune from banking and oil. His new wife helped expand the family’s support of civil rights, education and cultural life in Anchorage and beyond, including causes as varied as Alaska Native rights and health care, medical research in Seattle and the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.
“They always had a public consciousness, and that consciousness was evident in these civic acts,” said Stephen Haycox, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “They were not showy. They were quiet acts.”
At 99, Mrs. Rasmuson helped cut the ribbon at one of Anchorage’s most prominent structures, the expanded Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. More than 40 years earlier, she served as the chairwoman of the foundation that raised money for the original building to open in 1968.
Mrs. Rasmuson had been quick to adjust to Alaska. She learned to fish for salmon. She slept in cabins with no plumbing or electricity and called it a vacation. She flew to tiny places on tiny planes. She dealt with the dark winters and the Christmases at 20 degrees below zero.
“Mary Louise took it all in stride and said how beautiful it was and said how much she loved it,” recalled Lile Gibbons, her stepdaughter and a Republican state representative in Connecticut. “She was a very good sport. She had that Army training.”
Mary Louise Milligan was born on April 11, 1911, in East Pittsburgh, Pa. Her father, George, died when she was 12. She received a bachelor’s degree in education from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, part of what later became Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and earned a master’s in school administration from the University of Pittsburgh.
Besides Ms. Gibbons, Mrs. Rasmuson’s survivors include two other stepchildren, Ed Rasmuson and Judy Rasmuson; seven grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2000.
Mr. Haycox, the historian, said Mrs. Rasmuson’s Army service prompted some people to cast her as an early feminist. But that label may be misleading, he said.
“The way she would always put it was, ‘I want women to get the recognition they deserve,’ ” Mr. Haycox said.
Long after her husband died, the return address on the Christmas cards she sent out said, “Mrs. Elmer Rasmuson.”