Maria Lee Koh in 2011. Courtesy.

Maria Lee Koh, a prominent Seattle philanthropist and tireless champion of community health, education, libraries and cultural heritage, passed away May 2 after a tenacious seven-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. She was 91. 

Koh was born in 1933 in Shanghai. In 1950, she immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, where she’d been sent for continued schooling. Koh studied biochemistry at Gannon College in Pennsylvania. She met her husband James in Minneapolis, and they married in 1956. They moved to Seattle in 1962.  

James, a Boeing engineer, bought and redeveloped three aging historic hotels in the Chinatown-International District in the early 2000s. He passed away in 2019 at 93.  

Koh is survived by her children, Audrey (Gaeta) and Barbara (Patrick) of San Francisco and Christopher (India) and David (Michele) of Greater Seattle, and seven grandchildren.  

Maria Koh served on the board of the Seattle Public Library Foundation  from 1990 to 1998. Her passionate advocacy influenced the library to become more deeply connected to Seattle’s Asian American community.  

One of Koh’s favorite Chinese sayings came from her mother, a self-taught and voracious reader: “There are golden castles inside books.”

Her legacy lives on through two library spaces: the Maria Lee Koh and Family Fiction Collection in the downtown Seattle central library; and the Maria Lee Koh Children’s Area in the International District-Chinatown branch library.  

Among the non-profits she actively supported were the Chinese Information and Service Center, Northwest Kidney Centers, Kin On, and International Community Health Services. She frequently spoke at forums on issues of particular concern to Asian Americans such as hepatitis, diabetes and hypertension. 

“Many of Mom’s waking hours involved or arose from her professional career as a hospital nutritionist at UW,” daughter Audrey recounted. “She had a keen interest in not only the nutritional aspects of disease, but in the many medical subspecialties she consulted on at University Hospital.” 

In 2012, Koh was awarded the Jefferson Award for the State of Washington for her community and public service. “Mom was always proud of her Chinese heritage, but quite aware of the additional hurdles presented to women and minority people in the United States,” Audrey said. “I think she felt particularly proud to get this recognition of her contributions to her new country.” 

Daughter Barbara noted that her mom was active in the Seattle Chinese Women’s Club (SCWC). She helped organize fundraising food bazaars and welcome newly arrived University of Washington students. As SCWC president in 1974, she proposed a joint Christmas Dance Party with the Society of Chinese Engineers. Koh secured a restaurant with a dance floor where members dined and danced for five dollars.  

“It was a hit,” Barbara said. “The joint Women’s Club-Chinese Engineers Christmas Dance Party became an institution that continues today.” 

SCWC volunteers began teaching Mandarin to kids, leading to the founding of the Seattle Chinese School in 1966. Lessons took place in a University District YMCA room. Koh was the school’s third principal, from 1975 to 1978. She increased enrollment and acquired the latest textbooks from Taiwan, richly illustrated narrations of Chinese fables and stories featuring Chinese families. When the Saturday morning school outgrew the YMCA, she oversaw its move to a Mercer Island church basement.  

The Seattle School District asked her to serve on its Bilingual Education Commission from 1983 to 1985. 

Barbara Koh said her parents socialized mostly with other Mandarin-speaking Chinese and were part of a monthly poker-and-mahjong group.  

“Once or twice a year, the week before the Saturday party at our University- District house, mom started planning an eight-course Chinese menu, plus appetizers and dessert,” Barbara said. “She shopped in Chinatown and at Pike Place Market. The day of, she was a steaming and stir-frying whirlwind. Not until the last entree was out of the wok did mom join the nine couples in the dining room. Conversation was her priority, so when the house had emptied hours later, she ate, finally, from the leftovers.” 

Audrey recalled that her mom always made sure that the family ate healthy, home-cooked meals: “We had no ultra-processed food, ate very few desserts aside from fresh fruit, and took to school sandwiches on then-rare whole wheat bread, and celery sticks, which I can now admit went largely uneaten.” 

Jonna Ward, longtime CEO of the Seattle Public Library Foundation, said she felt incredibly honored to have attended Koh’s 90th birthday celebration. 

“At the most basic level, she was someone that cared for people and their good health,” Ward said. “When I think of Maria Koh, I think of someone who valued education above anything.  For herself, her own children, and the broader community, she knew how transformative education could be.”  

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