“When do we leave?” was the common refrain of philanthropist Terry Kohler, who passed away on September 20 at the age of 82. Known for his love of the outdoors, particularly sailing and birds, he and his wife, Mary, were often up for special missions, specifically ones linked to aviation and conservation. When Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson asked Kohler to fly to Alaska to transport precious trumpeter-swan eggs to the Milwaukee Zoo, there was no hesitation, and his penchant for adventure resulted in more than 5,000 trumpeter swans, with their eight-foot wingspan, now gracing the Midwest. Ever-ready to take to the skies, he also helped save the whooping crane by leading flocks to a new habitat in an ultralight airplane, and helped excavate rare dinosaur fossils with his copter.
A native of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Kohler was the great-grandson of the founder of the plumbing company by the same name. Both his father and grandfather were governors of the Badger State, and Kohler himself ran for office in 1982. While he lost the election, he married his campaign manager, Mary, and together they embarked on a philanthropic journey rooted in curiosity, patriotism, and elbow grease, taking on volunteer roles to supplement their checks. Informed by Terry’s experience leading the Vollrath Company from $13 million in annual sales to $300 million, the couple supported efforts to bolster the free enterprise system that buoyed them and their employees. Other beneficiaries of their generosity include the International Crane Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, and conservative policy thought leaders like the Institute for World Politics and the St. Croix Review.
The Kohlers also focused on strengthening marriage, supporting Great Marriages Sheboygan and the Philanthropy Roundtable’s Culture of Freedom project. Having gone through a divorce before his marriage to Mary, Kohler told Philanthropy that “intact families are most successful for the upbringing of children…. I’m not trying to imply that everybody who is getting or has gotten a divorce is bad. I’ve failed in that department myself. But we ought to make it as easy and desirable as possible for people to maintain intact families.”
To learn more about Mary and Terry Kohler’s philanthropy, read the Summer 2014 issue of Philanthropy, with an exclusive interview and additional information about Terry and Mary’s trek across Russia to save the Siberian crane. Their conservation work is also documented in The Almanac of American Philanthropy in the great achievements in nature compendium.