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Accounting Pioneer and Women’s Advocate

May 3, 2019
head portrait of a woman
Photo courtesy of the Lois Carolyn Mottonen Papers, UW American Heritage Center

UW alumna Lois Mottonen blazed trails and remembered her alma mater generously.

By Tamara Linse

“The aim was not to tear down the situation of men, but to raise women to a more equal partnership with men,” University of Wyoming accounting alumna Lois Mottonen wrote in her biography as president of the American Women’s Society of Certified Public Accountants. “Stress was on greater freedom of choice for women in planning their lives and on equality of opportunity, compensation and responsibility.”

A passionate advocate and philanthropist, Mottonen supported UW with annual giving for more than five decades and then remembered the UW College of Business with an amazing $5 million estate gift.

“She wanted to make sure that other kids, other students, received similar opportunities to her—students who wouldn’t be able to attend college otherwise, specifically in the College of Business,” says John Stark, senior vice president for development with the UW Foundation. “But she also wanted to make sure that students could go on and have successful careers beyond college. She wanted to make a difference in the lives of UW College of Business students.”

Always an accountant, throughout her life Mottonen was not only a hard worker but also a frugal saver, and her support of UW began way back in 1963. She supported her alma mater every decade since, including for scholarships, the College of Business, Wyoming Public Radio/KUWR, the American Heritage Center, ASUW and UW Libraries. 

Mottonen’s estate grew large over her lifetime. Once again, she used her resources to better her fellow women and men with an estate gift of more than $5 million to the UW College of Business. This amazing generosity benefits the new Student Success Center and business scholarships, as well as the university’s American Heritage Center.

“The student center will likely become the heart of the college,” says College of Business Dean David Sprott. “During the life of a student—from the moment they set foot on campus while visiting as a high school student until they’re an alumnus—the center is going to be where students can get the services that they need to prepare for the marketplace. That type of impact is going to last generations.”

Dean Sprott continues, “We already have a large scholarship base—we’re very blessed to have that—but Lois’s one gift is going to increase that by 25 percent, just her gift alone.”

“Lois’s gift is among two of the largest estate gifts that we’ve received,” says Stark. “Estate giving is oftentimes some of the largest, most impactful gifts that we have at the University of Wyoming. It’s the ultimate gift. Lois is a great example of that, in that she gave generously during her lifetime, but the ultimate gift came through her estate.”

Slated to open in academic year 2019–20, the new College of Business Student Success Center will promote a meaningful student experience at the College of Business followed by an inspiring career after graduation. The Lois Mottonen Business Scholarship will fund undergraduates in the College of Business with financial need. Funds will also support the American Heritage Center.

“My financial support for the university in Laramie and the community college in Laramie County is intended to place a few more chairs around the circle,” Mottonen wrote in her memoir. “I write those checks thinking about my parents. It’s my hope that some child who may not otherwise be able to get an education will walk across that stage as I did and be handed a diploma, the key to a better future not only or them but for their children as well.”

“I would like to let her know just how grateful we are for what she’s doing for our students and that her legacy will be one that is remarkable,” says Stark. “I wish she was here to see the impact, but she had a plan and she was going to carry it out and do it her way. That was Lois’s style.”

Mottonen knew about the challenges of being a woman in a man’s world. She was the only woman in her 1951 class of accountants at the UW, and she graduated with honors. She was the second woman to receive a CPA license in the state of Wyoming—Clara Toppan, another of UW’s own, was the first. She also was the first woman in government to be elected president of the American Woman’s Society of Certified Public Accountants.

When Mottonen earned her CPA license, the Denver Post published a story about her by a Wyoming reporter titled, “Pretty Blond Passes Wyoming CPA Test.”

Women were not hired by CPA firms when Mottonen graduated, and so she couldn’t find a job in accounting—first in Cheyenne and then in Denver. However, her UW professors had an idea: They advised her to apply to the U.S. Department of Treasury, where she was hired and worked from 1951 to 1979 as an internal revenue agent, audit supervisor, returns program manager, and chief of the collection and taxpayer services division.

Mottonen’s work desk held a black rotary phone, an adding machine and a manual typewriter, and her job entailed reviewing tax returns and answering direct calls from people completing their forms, sometimes on evenings and weekends. The 800 number had not yet been instituted, though Cheyenne’s office was one of the first in the pilot program, Mottonen says.

During that time, she appeared on the game show What’s My Line? Season 12, Episode 31, where contestants asked her questions and guessed her job as a U.S. income tax collector. This was one of her many brushes with fame.

In 1976, Mottonen was invited by Good Housekeeping Magazine as one of 200 women leaders from across the country to an event themed “Women in Passage” and titled “Who Should Speak for American Women in the Era of Change?” In 1995, in appreciation for all her work in equal opportunity for women, Mottonen was invited to tea with then President Bill Clinton and future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor’s 75th anniversary. She is also a UW Distinguished Alumna.

After working for the U.S. Department of Treasury, Mottonen worked for the Wyoming Department of Education in a position supported by the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act that promoted gender equity in school districts and community colleges. She also served as communications coordinator for the Wyoming Chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and managed programs for the state employees retirement group.

Shortly before her death in 2017, Mottonen co-wrote her memoir, Howard Zinn & Lois Mottonen Fistfight in the Equality State, with UW alumnus, Cheyenne author and Wyoming legislator Rodger McDaniel. It tells her and her family’s story in the context of the history of the state of Wyoming.

Mottonen had grown up an only child in Rock Springs, and her father was a coal miner who eventually passed away from black lung disease. Second-generation Finnish immigrants, neither of her parents graduated from high school. Mottonen came to UW in 1947. “I recall the shock when I went to college and discovered how sophisticated the Cheyenne students were,” Mottonen wrote. “Even so, the study habits I learned back home served me well, and the gap was quickly bridged.”

Mottonen also wrote, “Any of the successes I have enjoyed in the course of my life are rooted in the excellent education I received first in Rock Springs and later at the University of Wyoming. I never forgot the sacrifice my parents, themselves deprived of the opportunity, made in order that I might have the opportunity.”

“Mottonen grew up with a very supportive family, a family who cared a great deal about education but didn’t have a ton of resources,” says Stark, “and yet her parents helped her get through school. When she graduated from college and pursued a career in accounting, she was a pioneer. She clearly was ahead of her time.”

Mottonen was a member of the Chi Omega Sorority and of Phi Gamma Nu, which was “For women only—the brainy ones,” according to the 1952 WYO annual. She recalled that the football team at that time was called “the Punchers,” rather than “the Pokes.”

While at UW, she witnessed the Blizzard of ’49. She reported that the university initially canceled classes but then reopened them, long before the two-month blizzard ended. The regional death toll from the storm stood, officially, at 76, though some say it was actually higher.

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