A tribute to Mary Louise Curran ’36 and Charles Curran ’35: trailblazers, community leaders, and prolific apple growers
In 1938, Mary Louise Curran ’36 entered an essay contest that would change her life and her community forever. The topic was “Why I want to live in University Place,” and the goal was to advertise a newly developed subdivision close to the Puget Sound campus. She wrote:
At Soundview you may select a lot with unequaled view of nature’s splendors, one ever-changing. In the foreground are the sparkling waters of Puget Sound, in the distance wooded islands and beyond the Olympic mountains! Here, in surroundings free from the soot and smoke of the city, one may breathe refreshing sea air and enjoy the sunshine of the day, not to mention sunsets that leave you breathless. Where could one find a healthier spot to live and bring up children?
Mary won the contest, and the most enviable prize: a half-acre lot in University Place then valued at $400. She and her husband, Charles Curran ’35, built a home there and began raising a family. In 1951, a seven-acre wooded property two blocks south became available, and the couple saw an opportunity to create something special. They bought the land for $215 per acre and set to work clearing it for an apple orchard. They brought horses over to graze among the trees, a pretty sight that reminded Charles of his childhood in Kansas, and in 1955, had a two-story midcentury-modern house built on the property.
Today the Curran House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the orchard remains, drawing visitors for spring blossoms, summer concerts, and the fall cider squeeze.
“The orchard has continued to be a gathering place,” says Debbie Klosowski, who worked with the Curran family to preserve the land as a community park in 1993. “It’s a really special place where you can go to escape the hustle and bustle and the stress of everyday life. It’s also a wonderful living example of our community’s past.”
In her role as vice chair at the nonprofit organization UP for Arts, Debbie is involved in a campaign to fund a life-size bronze sculpture of a girl feeding an apple to a horse by local artist John Jewell ’66, M.Ed.’69. The “Forever Friends” sculpture will be located on the orchard to commemorate the land’s 25th anniversary as a park and pay tribute to the Currans, who made an indelible mark on the community of University Place, as well as the University of Puget Sound.
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The Currans met on campus in 1932. Mary came from Olympia, Wash., and Charles from Pratt, Kan., coming West “on the rails in the Depression,” according to his son, Charles “Chuck” Curran ’67. Mary’s parents hadn’t gone to college, but she was academically inclined, driven to get an education and inspired by an aunt who taught Latin.
Both Currans earned degrees in business administration. Charles worked as a driver for Wonder Bread/Hostess, then as secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 567, the union representing local bakery drivers and salesmen. In both roles, he had to make tough decisions that balanced competing interests.
Mary stayed at home to raise their three children—Chuck, Susan Eichner ’61, and Catherine Hagen—until the youngest was in grade school. Then she returned to Puget Sound, taking various high-level administrative roles in an era when few women held positions of power. Her titles included assistant dean of students and dean of women
“She wanted to work. She felt good about it,” says Chuck.
When the college established its first personnel department after the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, then-President R. Franklin Thompson asked Mary to head it. Despite the progress in equal employment in the ’70s, equal pay remained an issue. “There was a major gap, and she was a champion of having women catch up,” says Chuck.
Colleagues and friends agree that Mary was ahead of her time. She navigated major social issues and kept pace with changing norms. Part of her job was serving as “affirmative action officer,” and she worked to achieve equality for students, faculty, and staff, as well as more diverse representation.
George Mills ’68, M.S.’72, associate vice president for university relations and long-serving vice president for admissions at Puget Sound, remembers Mary as “wise and unflappable.” While gender issues were only beginning to enter mainstream conversation, “the smoke was certainly coming under the door,” George says. Mary recognized how the world was changing, and she helped create policies to bring the college into the modern age.
She was “a kingpin for student services,” says Mary Longland, who worked for Mary Curran at Puget Sound and kept up a long friendship afterward.
“‘Queenpin’ is a better term,” suggests Rosa Beth Gibson, a former associate vice president for human resources.
The personnel department itself “was a huge transition,” Mary Longland says, especially for departments that used to have full autonomy over employees. But she notes that Mary Curran sailed through it without much conflict “simply because people knew at the onset that she had the other person’s best interests at heart.”
“And the university’s best interests at heart,” adds Rosa Beth.
“That’s right,” Mary Longland says. “But she wasn’t any pushover.”