A Tribute to Mary Anderson, REI’s Co-Founder

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How can I capture the essence of a woman who lived to be 107 and witnessed changes in the world nobody could have predicted in 1909, the year she was born? Perhaps simply by saying thank you to REI’s co-founder, Mary Anderson, for sharing stories of her life with me and for giving us the enduring gift of the co-op.

I first met Mary through Sally Jewell, REI’s former CEO. Sally nurtured a beautiful friendship with Mary after Mary’s many years of being disconnected from REI. During my occasional visits throughout the years, Mary delighted me with stories of her youth and growing up, and then with stories about REI’s early days and the challenges the fledgling co-op faced. While I don’t recall all the details of those stories, the impression I gained was of Mary as a strong-minded, tenacious partner in the business, willing it to survive and succeed.

Perseverance and Grit

Mary led the co-op at a time when women were undervalued in their talents and contributions, and ostracized for involvement in business. I don’t believe Mary ever let that societal sentiment hold her back.

She was used to hardship and adversity from her childhood and she knew that persistence paid off. In those early days of the co-op, she performed many roles in the business, from seamstress of product to German translator to “head of distribution,” which meant housing and shipping inventory from her home. Mary also produced REI catalogs, thanks in large part to the artistic talents of her daughters, Ruth and Sue.

Lloyd and Mary’s passionate commitment, along with the hard work and sacrifice of the entire Anderson family, kept the co-op alive when by all rights it could have failed for lack of capital, facilities and stable leadership. But it is precisely passion, hard work and commitment that continue to characterize the co-op today. And our tradition of strong women leaders continues to distinguish REI within the outdoor industry.

Mary the Mountain Goat

A Deep, Broad Legacy

As current or past REI employees, many of us have had the privilege of seeing and hearing Mary, kissing her cheek and shaking her hand, and cheering for her as she told funny stories about Lloyd and their shared love of mountaineering.

Whether you’re new to REI or someone like me who spent many years at the co-op, she lives on in our collective experiences with her. That is a priceless gift, and to Mary herself who left this world as a proud founder of a remarkable organization.

As one employee said this week, “I owe so much of the fabric of my life to Mary I can’t even describe it. My career, my peers, my closest partners, my greatest friends, all connected through REI. She has been and always will be one of my biggest inspirations and I’m so honored to be even a small part of her legacy.”

Mary’s legacy is broad and deep. She will be remembered for her role in co-founding REI, and we will continue to honor her through our Anderson Awards and the Mary Anderson Legacy Grant. She is a symbol for us of enduring values—passion for the outdoors, a principled life, community, hard work and perseverance. In her name and spirit, thousands of REI employees over many years will make the mountains their cathedrals and share their love of the outdoors.

Mary Anderson, may you rest in serene peace.

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