“Giving away money can be lots of fun!” an interview with Mary Kohler

Published January 1, 2001

Mary Kohler is a 71-year-old dynamo. There’s simply no better word for her.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a degree in paleontology, she has worked in advertising and public relations for the past 40 years. She puts the lie to those who would suggest Republicans are anti-environment.

Kohler has spent a lifetime working for Republican election committees, including as campaign manager for her husband Terry’s bid for the U.S. Senate in 1980. A longtime delegate to the Republican National Convention, she has also served in leadership positions with a score of environmental advocacy groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Museum of the Rockies, Riveredge Nature Center, and the International Crane Foundation.

Kohler currently serves on the Public Affairs Steering Committee of the National Association of Manufacturers. When she is not involved in relocating birds across the United States—a vocation she discusses at length with Environment & Climate News managing editor Jay Lehr—she works full-time in public affairs with Windway Capital Corp.

Lehr: Your Windway Foundation has taken a special interest in various conservation efforts. How did all this come about?

Kohler: Let me tell you a story.

One day the governor, Tommy Thompson, a friend of Terry’s and mine, called to say that Wisconsin was being allowed to reintroduce Trumpeter Swans, once native, but hunted out and replaced by European birds. They were to be collected in Alaska, from nests that had more than two viable eggs, then transported to the Milwaukee Zoo for hatching, raised without imprinting on humans, and returned to the wild.

But how to get the eggs, which would be soon to hatch, quickly to Wisconsin? Commercial airlines don’t go from Glennallen to Milwaukee, direct.

Windway had a business jet. Could it make the trip? the governor asked. And Terry said, “When do we leave?”

Lehr: So was this the beginning? But why were you and Terry interested?


Kohler: Well, Terry loved to fly . . . any excuse. And my own family cared a lot about the environment, when that was scarcely a word. We walked the woods, identified the birds and the wildflowers, kept our wild lands wild and buggy, loved swamps and bogs. So when I married into this relationship with Windway and its charitable giving, I already had a penchant for saving the wild spaces.


So what does Windway do when it is not flying bird eggs around the country?


Kohler: The largest company in our holding is The Vollrath Co., Inc., located in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It was founded in 1874, using the imported technique of enameling steel, to make various items, including pots and pans. We have evolved into being the largest manufacturer of stainless steel hotel pans and large stockpots and many other items for institutional food service.

We also own North Sails, the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech racing sails. Every America’s Cup boat but one carried our sails in this last series, and ultimately the two boats that sailed the cup.

These sails, called 3DL, are made on huge molds in a laminate process that allows them to hold the optimum shape . . . actually, sort of a Rube Goldberg machine. Additionally, North makes carbon masts, fishing boats, and other items for the boating public.


Would you call Windway strongly environmentalist, a green organization?


Kohler: The Kohlers who own and operate Windway have a strong belief in the free market, in private property, and entrepreneurship. So the answer is no.

Much of the land that has been saved, was and often still is, privately owned. There are, however, numbers of organizations which in one way or the other, use the free market to improve the environment in addition to The Nature Conservancy—the one of which everyone thinks.

Lehr: When did your environmental philanthropy begin?


Kohler: Even before Terry and I were married, I was active in conservation. In suburban Milwaukee, one hour south of Sheboygan, a group of ladies from a women’s club bought some property on the Milwaukee River, hired a naturalist, and began to train volunteer “teacher-naturalists.” I was in that first class. We studied all winter. We were naive, we had no proper boots, and we froze. But learning by doing, wading in the river, digging in the soil, looking for animal tracks, was fascinating.

Although I gave small contributions, my real environmental philanthropy began with time spent with sixth grade classes. Many a morning I wished I could stay inside and huddle by the fire. But inevitably, when I finished that day’s teaching, I was always glad to have gone.


What is the exact structure of your environmental charity?


Kohler: Actually, we have two separate charities. Windway Foundation, Inc. is a company pass-through foundation, originally called The Vollrath Company Foundation before we became the world’s smallest conglomerate. I am the vice president, and essentially the decision-maker for that foundation. In cases of larger gifts, I encourage Terry’s input.

I also am the executive director of a larger charitable trust, set up with funds that Terry’s stepmother left in her will. Three Trustees ultimately make the decisions as to amounts and grantees. We consider it wise to disperse the corpus of the charitable trust in a finite period of time while those acquainted with the philosophy of the family are still active.


So what sorts of organizations fulfill your requirements?


Kohler: Almost immediately the International Crane Foundation (ICF) heard about our egg pickup and asked us to transport Whooping Crane eggs from Ft. Smith, Canada to Baraboo, Wisconsin; then later full-grown cranes to Florida; and now we’re doing various things to promote the first new migratory flock introduction. And we’ve helped to save some piping plovers and Siberian cranes, and supported Humboldt penguin research.


How successful are these reintroductions?


Kohler: Success with the swans was defined as having 20 breeding pairs in 2000 after ten years of egg transport . . . about 60 eggs each year. But rather than 20, there were 38, and oodles of young. That constitutes more than success.

Success with the cranes is different. The Whoopers had only a single flock, flying from their breeding grounds in northwestern Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas in the winter. A bad oil spill or a disease epidemic could easily wipe them out. It was important to introduce other, geographically diverse, flocks.

This past spring the first chicks were born to a pair of Whoopers in Florida, part of a non-migratory flock. Terry has just returned from video taping a pair that decided to migrate to Michigan. Time will tell whether the new migratory flock intended to breed in Wisconsin and winter in Florida will actually happen. But we will be helping.


So who monitors these reintroductions?


Kohler: Well, sometimes we help. Terry and other employees fly Windway’s helicopter and small planes, filming and counting those birds that we brought back as eggs. ICF incubates the crane eggs. The young are raised without imprinting on people, with a costumed “mother” in Baraboo. They carry transmitters and bands that allow identification.

Our planes are sometimes sent to find those that get “lost,” like that pair in Michigan, which without any permits, migrated from Florida, through Illinois, to a peat bog that suited them. They built two nests for practice (we think), but this year laid no eggs.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources carries out a similar program with the swans, which are incubated at the Milwaukee Zoo, and then raised by a costumed “mother” in a Wisconsin marsh. Swans are a bit easier, since they figure out how to migrate and return on their own.


So why is it important to bring these birds back? What would be so bad about extinction?


Kohler: Maybe it’s because they are beautiful, and they once lived here. Every species has its distinct DNA. There will always be extinctions, but man has speeded up the process. We’re pleased to help slow it down.


But are there other more “normal” organizations in this field that your company and foundations support?


Kohler: Yes. We support seminars for teaching the legal profession, judges and professors, about the environment. We work with a group that is trying to reform the Forest Service using market incentives as mechanisms for decision-making. We support that nature center that trained me.

We’ve helped The Heartland Institute [publishers of Environment & Climate News] with various environmental programs, disseminating truth rather than scare tactics, education rather than excessive government regulation. Too often environmentalism is a cover for socialistic policies.


Do you have any thoughts on our government’s environmental programs?


Kohler: I should first say that we have had very good relationships with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, with whom we have worked with the swans.

The federal government, being farther away and less personal, can sometimes be more difficult. They must rely on budgets made by Congress and by rules of the sort of one-size-fits-all.

An example: In order for a federal employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be a passenger in a private helicopter, the pilot must have 1500 hours of flying time. This may not seem like much, but only full-time professional pilots would qualify. So Terry could not fly anyone from Fish and Wildlife to assess an area. We could not donate helicopter time or a pilot for the project. In fact, the employee of Fish and Wildlife could not even take his vacation and do it!

One of my favorite stories is about visiting Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace many years ago. The cabin in which he was born had been placed inside a marble mausoleum, and was as bare as an old bone . . . not a stick of furniture. Outside, on the frontier farm, there is no field, but a lovely landscaped area covered with blue blooming Vinca!

That federal monument is only a few miles from a cabin in which Abe spent his early childhood. This cabin, owned by a private party, was furnished in the style of the times. There was a field with a creek in back. In my mind’s eye I could see young Lincoln with his bucket going out back to fetch water.


And what about private conservation vs. government ownership of land?


Kohler: This country was founded with a philosophy of freedom, with which private ownership of property is closely tied. We seem to have forgotten that. Someway, too many people think that to save wilderness, or cabins, or owls, only the government can do it.

We believe that the closer to the individual the decisions are made, the more likely they are to be correct. We don’t favor present government policies at the state or federal level of buying and trying to manage more and more land. The government hasn’t the funds to manage what it already owns, as witness the fires of last summer.

Lehr: How could others help?


Kohler: Join a nature center in your area, take some classes, subscribe to Environment & Climate News. Use your own skills, whether they are teaching, flying small planes, being a bird “mother,” raising money, giving money, gathering “weed” seeds, or researching. There are myriad ways to help.


Any parting thoughts?


Kohler: Others might not think of my dinosaur research as connected with the environment. We’ve worked with Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies, both with funds for specialized equipment, and with helicopter videos and transport to remote areas, as well as overseas research. Did you know that the dinosaurs were the ancestors of birds? When we learn more about life in the Mesozoic, perhaps we will better understand the swans and cranes.

We have learned much from these various adventures. There are lots of opportunities. Today the Sandhills and three ultra-light aircraft have left Wisconsin to “migrate” to Florida. This is the first step in the experiment that may create the second migratory flock of Whoopers . . . if all goes well with the stand-in Sandhills.

So go for it! Giving away money can be lots of fun.