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Mary Monroe Davis, shown here in an undated photo, donated more than $20 million for scholarships in the Yakima Valley area in a program administered by the Yakima Rotary Trust. (JILL FALK/Courtesy Photo)

Mary Monroe Davis did not live the life of a wealthy woman.

Davis, known to friends as Mollie, lived for many years on a Thorp cattle ranch, where she canned elderberry jelly, killed rattlesnakes with rocks and did not move in high-society circles.

But her outwardly simple ways belied the fact that she was a wealthy woman who planned to help hundreds of others improve their lives. At her death in 2008, Davis bequeathed $20 million to be used as two- and four-year scholarships at Perry Technical Institute and other colleges.

Born Nov. 23, 1914, in Wenatchee, Davis moved to Yakima with her family when she was 10 years old. Her parents, James and Mary Monroe, made their fortune in orchards and lumber, and she attended a private girls school in Tacoma before transferring to Yakima High School, where she graduated in the 1930s.

She married Warren Davis in the early 1940s, and after living in Fresno, Calif., and Cincinnati, they moved to Thorp, buying the Hidden Valley Ranch. Warren Davis served as president of the Kittitas County Cattlemen’s Association and a board member of the Ellensburg Rodeo, while Davis stayed home and raised their children.

When her husband died in 1977, she moved back to her family’s home near Yakima’s Franklin Park, where she continued a private life. She didn’t join local clubs or service organizations nor attend neighborhood gatherings, according to friends and family.

Those close to her knew she was wealthy, but Davis did not flaunt it. She continued driving a 1988 Cadillac and would go to town once a week for dinner and have ice cream at Dairy Queen.

Joe Falk, her attorney, said that after her death one of her neighbors mentioned he thought she couldn’t afford to take care of her home and was planning to offer her some assistance.

But she had a passion, friends and family said. And that was education, which she saw as improving people and the community, Falk said.

“Better leaders tomorrow will come from better education today,” Davis was quoted in the scholarship materials as saying.

Falk and accountant John Rothenbueler met her in the early 1990s, when she was looking for a local attorney and accountant to handle her affairs. She told them she wanted to create a scholarship program, and she had outlined a proposal. The three worked together to craft what is now the Mary Monroe Davis Scholarship program.

In her will, she bequeathed $17 million to the Yakima Valley Community Foundation to create a college scholarship program, with the Yakima Rotary Trust administering the scholarships. She also gave $3.85 million to Perry Tech to help students there, with scholarships for men and women.

Davis wanted to keep her name out of it as long as she was alive, which Falk said was a challenge, given how Rotarians knew someone was going to gift a large amount of money for scholarships and put the Rotary in charge.

“John and I bent over backwards to protect her privacy,” Falk recalled. “There were guesses, but nobody was close.”

Rothenbueler said they would take care to not park near her house when they went to meet with her, lest someone would put the clues together and realize she was the donor.

Davis died Nov. 24, 2008, at 94, and shortly afterward the scholarship program — and her role — were announced, much to the surprise of many.

Since 2010, more than $5.4 million has been given to 301 Mollie Davis Scholars, said Yakima Rotary Trust President Jill Falk.

The scholarships are awarded to students based on need, academic ability and community leadership, Jill Falk said. The goal, she said, is to provide help for well-rounded people who need it. And it’s not just for high school students, but older people going back to college as well.

She said many of the recipients have gone on to medical school, become teachers and hold other respectable jobs in the community.

“I think she would be absolutely delighted” with how the program has turned out, Joe Falk said.

• It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at 509-577-7748 or dmeyers@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/donaldwmeyers.

This story was updated to correct attribution of a quote by Joe Falk.