Mary E. Davidson leaves lasting legacy after a life dedicated to education, giving back

Mary E. Davidson, the former vice chancellor for academic affairs of the KU Regents Center (now the KU Edwards Campus), passed away on Dec. 6, 2021.

Mary Davidson portrait by EG Schempf

Mary E. Davidson, the former vice chancellor for academic affairs of the KU Regents Center (now the KU Edwards Campus), passed away on Dec. 6, 2021.

A Kansas City native, Davidson’s life and legacy continue to have an impact on the surrounding community and beyond. Instrumental in the expansion of the KU Edwards Campus, she dedicated her life and career to education and giving back to the community.

“All of us at the KU Edwards Campus are deeply grateful for Mary’s contributions to the university, Johnson County and learners of all ages,” said Stuart Day, dean of the KU Edwards Campus and School of Professional Studies. “Her legacy lives on through past, current and future students who serve, and will serve, the Kansas City area she so generously supported.”

Davidson is a KU alumna, graduating with her doctorate in education administration in 1977. She taught fifth, sixth, and seventh grades in the Kansas City, Missouri, school district and taught science for grades K-7 for the Kansas City School District’s educational television station KCSD. She was also host of the “Something of Interest” program on cable and “It’s our Community” for Johnson County Community College (JCCC). She served as vice chancellor for academic affairs of the KU Regents Center (later called the KU Edwards Campus) from 1976 to 1992 and as the assistant director of the William T. Kemper Foundation from 1993 to 1997.

In March 2002, Davidson was appointed by the United States Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush to be the Secretary’s Regional Representative for Region VII. In this role, she served as the liaison to state and local agencies, colleges and universities, and public and private schools. In a 2003 Kansas City Business Journal editorial covering the appointment, the Shawnee Mission superintendent at the time, Marjorie Kaplan, said, “Mary Cohen is that rare individual who cares about education for all children. Whenever I have worked with her, I have always been impressed with her enthusiasm for learning, her knowledge about the instructional process and her understanding of the issues related to the public educational system."

David Cook, vice chancellor for public affairs and economic development and former vice chancellor of the KU Edwards Campus, echoes this sentiment. “Mary was an incredible advocate for the public education system, and her hard work and generosity will continue to benefit generations to come,” he said.

Davidson and her late husband, Barton Cohen, were long-time supporters of JCCC and its Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2005, the museum dedicated the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Gallery space and established the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Art Acquisition Endowment in 2009. The Johnson County Community College Foundation named Davidson Johnson Countian of the Year in 2015 for her many years of community service.

I knew Mary for a short time these last few years, but her enthusiasm for life and learning shaped the world around her,” said Michael McCloud, executive vice president of academic affairs and chief academic officer at JCCC, and a member of the KU Edwards Campus Workforce Advisory Board. “We have lost someone with infinite charm, boundless joy, and the quickest of wit. She brought a smile to my face with every single conversation.”

Davidson’s extensive volunteerism included serving as chair of the Board of Overseers for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, for which she received the Coast Guard medal for meritorious public service.  Other volunteer roles included:

  • President of the Overland Park Rotary Club and the Overland Park Rotary Club Foundation Board
  • Commissioner of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and of the Overland Park Planning Commission
  • Chair of the Johnson County Community College Foundation Executive Committee
  • Chair of the National World War I Museum Board of Directors
  • Interim president and CEO of the National World War I Museum
  • A member of the executive committee of the Freedoms Frontier National Heritage Area Board of Directors
  • Chair of the Board of Directors for the Kansas City Museum
  • Member of the governance board of the Children’s Campus of Kansas City, Kansas
  • Co-trustee with Midwest Trust Company of the Barton P. Cohen and Mary Davidson Cohen Charitable Funds

“For the last 45 plus years, Dr. Mary Davidson has been a civic leader and community influencer,” said Mary Birch, government relations coordinator at Lathrop Gage and member of the KUEC Board of Advisors. “Her generous philanthropy spanned Wyandotte and Johnson counties as well as Jackson County. I had the honor at the OP Chamber to meet the ‘force of Mary’ and partner with her, the Edwards Family, Clay Blair and the City of Overland Park to move and expand the KU Edwards Campus to its current location. And while she leaves many meaningful fingerprints all over our community, her passion for education left us a lasting legacy at both the Edwards Campus and JCCC. She was a pioneer leader and got things done. But most importantly, she was my dear friend.”

In the 2003 Kansas City Business Journal editorial, Davidson is quoted as saying, "You have to keep turning over rocks looking for opportunities. The first nine rocks might have nothing under them, until you get to the 10th."

Through her many contributions, more people in the community are inspired to look for opportunities to better their lives and the lives of others in the community.

Learn more about her accomplishments and contributions, and leave your tributes here.

Top photo courtesy of EG Schempf and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.  

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