by Lawn Giffiths
There’s a rule: Don’t touch the items in a museum.
However, Mary Ann Kwilosz has had her hands all over the Tempe History Museum for four decades. She has left her prints on a full range of the activities and programs. Her legacy is intact as she retires from membership on the board of directors of the Tempe History Society. Mary Ann twice served two-year terms as board president, 1992-94 and 2007-09. She also served on the Museum Advisory Board for six years.
She enlisted volunteers and guided them through countless programs. She was there when the city erected a new library in the late 1980s that allowed for the museum holdings, scattered around town, to be consolidated in a permanent home that had been the library. Her longevity made her an “institutional memory” for the Society.
Mary Ann has been the face of Lunch Talks and the Tree of Lights holiday program, for example. She was a founder of Hayden’s Ferry Days. B-B-Q fund-raisers and golf tournaments also were on her list of events planned for the Society. She has been a take-charge event-organizer and master of detail.
Talk to her for five minutes and she mentions names of earnest volunteers she has worked with and calls friends – too many of them now deceased.
Born and raised in a Czech stronghold of Chicago, Mary Ann said she was Czech and English bilingual before starting to school. “I have a great ethnic background … I take pride coming from two different cultures – it made me who I am,” she said.
Mary Ann earned a degree in Education, with a minor in geography, from Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Art was her passion. She took classes at the Art Institute in Chicago. She wanted to become a designer, but she was told it was such a male-dominated field, she couldn’t make a success of it. “At the time I was growing up, women were nurses, teachers and secretaries.”
She taught 4th grade for a time in Cicero. She married and became mother of daughter Karen and son Kenneth. Mary Ann, her late husband Kenneth, a mechanical engineer, and their two children moved to the Valley in 1969 because it was a recommended destination to relieve young Kenneth’s severe asthma. They initially lived in Phoenix, but later built a home on Pebble Beach Drive on what was the southern edge of Tempe near Southern and McClintock. “All we could smell were cows and were surrounded by farm fields,” she said. “Oh, my gosh, the kids loved it. They could ride their bikes in what is now the US 60 Freeway because the existing freeway ended at Rural Road. The air was so clear,” and it seemed she could see all the way south to Tucson.
For about six years, Mary Ann and a neighbor friend had a business, Arenda, which helped companies with the tasks of launching themselves, especially with their grand openings and receptions.
Mary Ann became involved with American Association of University Women’s group and at her children’s schools. She served on a McClintock High School band parents group, including serving as a chaperone on a band trip. Once the band traveled to Hawaii for several days, but supervising kids meant hardly experiencing Hawaii for herself, she said. “It was an adventure.”
Mary Ann helped with the City of Tempe Mayor’s community breakfasts, as well as those featuring Tempe’s state legislators like Doug Todd and Juanita Harelson. Her love of history drew her to the Tempe’s museum community.
She noted Tempe’s coordinator of volunteers at the time, Maryanna Bastin, came to her and said, “I know you are busy at the museum, but would you mind helping out at City Hall? The city needs somebody for two weeks to fill in for someone on vacation.”
She had just arranged to start work as a substitute teacher in the Kyrene School District, but was recruited, instead, to work on the top floor of Tempe City Hall as the receptionist. “It was a wonderful experience,” Mary Ann said, noting she worked with three city managers. “If you are interested at all in history and politics, what a place to be. It was an eye opener, a learning experience, and I met the nicest people.” In time she divided time between City Hall and Tempe Center for the Arts – and could be called on to fill in for others in the city offices.
Mary Ann singled out five museum denizens in those years – Catherine “Biddy” Hayden, Diane Matsch, Marie Rice and Jane Dibble. They said, “You’ve got to come join us. One thing led to another, and pretty soon, I was on the Society’s Board. I was president twice because I didn’t run fast enough. One time I was in Europe, and I came back and found out I was the president. Claire Young arranged that for me.” In time, she would hold every board office except that of treasurer.
Mary Ann talks fondly of working on events at the Niels Petersen House and the joy of actually cooking meals on the stove in that historic home built in 1892. “I made apple sauce in that house,” she said. Decorating it for Christmas public tours was an annual highlight. “We had the best time.” Cultural events on the home’s grounds brought together the community. “We had a great event called ‘The Day of the Child” on the grounds of Petersen. “The attendance was phenomenal.”
“I think my journey has been meeting some amazing people all the way along the line.” She singled out the late Arizona Governor and Tempean Howard Pyle for his gracious personality and work on the board. The Tempe Museum was recipient of his archives. “When Governor Pyle’s items came in, there were tons and tons of material,” she said. It was daunting task for staff and volunteers to catalogue and file the historic documents and artifacts.
Each year Mary Ann scheduled compelling speakers for the Society’s Lunch Talks series, held at the museum the second Wednesday of each month, except during the summer.
She had a hand with establishing the museum’s gift shop to raise additional money for museum services, especially when multiple bake sales failed to bring in substantive revenue. “We had to reinvent ourselves in what to sell,” she said, noting they in the mid-1990s, Beanie Babies were popular. “The gift shop was so successful with the Beanie Babies. People would stand knocking on the locked doors to get them. We generated a lot of money and were able to pay for much support of the Museum.”
Mary Ann helped organize Tempe Legends events that raised awareness of some of the giants in the city in a wide range of disciplines and public service, living and deceased. To date, about 75 men and women have been recognized during three events.
For 20 years, she oversaw the Larry Campbell Tree of Lights event in the museum’s lobby where the public purchased tree ornaments containing the names of relatives or friends to be remembered. One tree is dedicated to military veterans.
In her retirement, Mary Ann will spend more time with family and do some caregiving for friends. She became a great-grandmother in November for a girl named Evelyn – after having six grandsons. She will also stay active in her duties at St. Benedict Parish in Ahwatukee.
Why did Mary Ann Kwilosz spend 40 years with the museum as a volunteer? “I really liked history and meeting so many very special people – preserving history and finding out things that I never would have known if I had not been part of that original group.”
Seeing that the Tempe History Society was, once again, robust and healthy, she determined it was time to retire. “My motto has always been, ‘Without change, there are no butterflies.’”
From THS President Vic Linoff:
When Mary Ann recently announced her retirement from the Society after four of its five-decade history, we really wondered how we could continue. Mary Ann served in nearly all of the leadership roles and provided continuing inspiration, experience and knowledge. It is impossible to think of the Society without thinking of Mary Ann. She was really the public face of the Society, meeting and greeting people at events, always taking on providing the best food and drink, decorations and the other myriad details for events.
We are deeply indebted to her years of unmatched service. The Society would not be what it is today without Mary Ann.
We wish her the very best in retirement, and all the future endeavors we know she will undertake.