Alice Mayo was known for her hospitality, artistic sensibilities and her social conscience. Rochester was fortunate that the girl born Alice Varney Plank found her
Alice was born in Upper Darby Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, to Chester and Lillian Plank. In Pennsylvania, her father provided for the family as a butter and egg man. Here Alice learned ballet and horseback riding and studied art. She completed three years at the School of Design for Women, where she was studying to be a painter.
Then she met Charles Mayo, son of the famous founder of the Mayo Clinic, Charlie Mayo. This Charles Mayo was known as “Chuck.”
“You’ve married the Mayo Clinic”
Chuck was the oldest son of Charlie and Edith Mayo in Rochester. Like his famous father, uncle and grandfather, he became a doctor, first attending Princeton and then the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. While Chuck was in his final year of medical school, he met Alice at a fraternity event.
“There was a grace to her and a lot of femininity,” Chuck remembered in his memoirs. “She was ravishingly pretty with dark blue eyes and a
Alice resisted his advances until they met again at the Spring Ivy Ball, and Chuck gave Alice, her date and her friends a ride home. “One-a-week” Mayo, named for his changeover in girlfriends, soon lost his nickname. Chuck and Alice married on June 25, 1927. Chuck was 28 and Alice was 20.
Chuck returned to Rochester to practice medicine and the couple moved into Ivy Cottage on the Mayowood estate. Chuck’s mother, Edith, gave Alice the grand tour. “So you can see what you’re getting into. Look us over carefully, Alice,” Edith had said. “I want you to like us. You haven’t married a Mayo; you’ve married the Mayo Clinic.”
Edith served as hostess to dignitaries and visiting doctors over the years at Mayowood, making it a warm home and a social destination. Soon after Charlie Mayo died in 1939, Edith retired as mistress of the house to the Ivy Cottage, and Chuck, Alice and their growing family moved into Mayowood’s main house. For nearly 30 years after that, Alice was the unofficial hostess of Rochester and the Mayo Clinic.
Motherhood and charity
Alice and Chuck had six children: Mildred (“Muff”), Charles, Edward (“Ned”), Joseph, Edith and Alexander. One of Chuck’s brother’s died at an early age, and Chuck and Alice took on his two sons, Bill and David.
Alice was a loving and playful mother and artistic hostess. Yet she still found time for many charitable works. During WWII, she spearheaded Rochester’s Bundles for Britain program. She was also on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service (DACOWITS) and had a part in erecting a $2 million Nurses National Memorial in 1949.
Alice Mayo was a board member of the Minnesota United Nations and a member of the American-Korean Foundation. She also served the Olmsted County Association of Retarded Children and on the Women’s Auxiliary to the Minnesota State Medical Association. She supported the Rochester Art Center and the History Center of Olmsted County.
Beyond charitable interests, Alice was president, owner and operator of radio station KLER. As a businesswoman, she was on the Fair Employment Practices Board of Review, State of Minnesota.
Alice Plank Mayo’s legacy lives on at Mayowood, where she’s left her artistic imprint and lasting memories of social events; it lives on through her children and their children; and it lives on through her charitable endeavors. Even the Magazine Club, founded by Edith and Hattie Mayo for wives of doctors of the Mayo Clinic, changed its name to the Alice Mayo Society.
Coralee Grebe is a writer, actor and artistic director of It’s About Time Theater (IAT), which will perform an original play about the Mayo women, with funding provided by the State of Minnesota Arts and Cultutral Heritage Fund, in 2012.