Mary Louise Curtis was born in 1876, the only child of publishing magnate Cyrus H.K. Curtis and Louisa Knapp Curtis. She was educated at the prestigious Ogontz School for Young Ladies and received musical training in piano and organ. At the age of 13, Mary Louise began writing for The Ladies’ Home Journal.
In 1896, Mary Louise married Edward W. Bok, then editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal. They had two sons, W. Curtis and Cary. Being both deeply philanthropic and passionate about music, Mary Louise became involved with the Settlement Music School, which, at that time, focused on providing musical education to young immigrants. Her work with the Settlement Music School ultimately led her to found the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924. The conservatory is solely merit-based and tuition-free, thanks to a generous endowment from Mary Louise – something which was unprecedented at that time. It remains so to this day.
Mary Louise and Edward purchased a winter home in the Polk County, Florida community of Mountain Lake. There Edward pursued his passion project: the Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Singing Tower, now known as Bok Tower Gardens. The Boks also founded the American Foundation, which, in addition to overseeing the Sanctuary operations, did work in a variety of areas, including prison reform, medical research, US-Russian relations, the creation of a world criminal court, and establishing the American Peace Award. This work speaks to the visionary nature of the Boks that nearly all of the topics that the Foundation identified are still important issues today.
In addition to her work with the Gardens, she retained a seat on the boards of the American Foundation, Curtis Institute, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Curtis Publishing Company, along with numerous other philanthropic activities. Mary Louise was also involved in the Lake Wales community, generously supporting Lake Wales Hospital and the Lake Wales Public Library.
Mary Louise passed away on January 4, 1970, at the age of 93. She was a true renaissance woman who used her considerable resources to improve countless lives and truly made the world a better and more beautiful place.
Written by Jaime L. Fogel, MLS, Library & Archival Collections Manager. Photos are part of the Bok Tower Gardens Digital Collection.
Republished with permission from the Polk County Historical Association’s quarterly publication, Polk Proud History.