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 Kathleen Mullins, the president and CEO of Historic Ford Estates, addresses attendees during the 150th anniversary of Fair Lane — the Dearborn estate of Henry and Clara Ford — in 2013. Mullins, who retired in 2018, died  Oct. 15 following  a battle with ovarian cancer.

Kathleen Mullins, the president and CEO of Historic Ford Estates, addresses attendees during the 150th anniversary of Fair Lane — the Dearborn estate of Henry and Clara Ford — in 2013. Mullins, who retired in 2018, died Oct. 15 following a battle with ovarian cancer.

Photo provided by the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House

Retired Ford House President and CEO Kathleen Mullins dies

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 22, 2019


GROSSE POINTES — She may have only lived and worked in the Grosse Pointes for 10 years, but Kathleen Stiso Mullins left an impact that will be felt for generations.

News of her death Oct. 15 at the age of 71 has left community leaders stunned and saddened.

Recently retired Grosse Pointe Shores City Manager Mark Wollenweber worked with Mullins on a number of projects.

“She was missed when she left,” he said. “She was always very professional and a great person to deal with. She was just a wonderful person. And she did so many positive things, not just for the Ford House, but for the whole Grosse Pointe community.”

Mullins, who died after a four-year battle with ovarian cancer, retired May 31, 2018, as the president and CEO of Historic Ford Estates, which includes the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores. She also lived in the Shores while working at the Ford House. After her retirement, she moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, to join her husband, James L. Mullins, who retired as a dean at Purdue University in December 2017.

With a career that took her to places across the country, Mullins used to jokingly refer to herself as a nomad. But in the Pointes, she found a home that embraced her as much as she embraced it.

“I’ve worked in a lot of communities,” Mullins said last spring. “This is truly my favorite. … It’s been the fastest 10 years of my life.”

During her tenure, the Ford House introduced many popular new programs and events, including annual summer concerts by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Fairy Tale Festival and Winter Wonderland. In addition, Mullins shepherded a green initiative on the grounds a couple of years ago, as well as the forthcoming new visitors center and administrative building on Ford House property, the largest new construction project at the estate since the historic mansion was built in 1929. Ground was broken for the buildings in November 2017, and construction is slated for completion in late 2020.

“Kathleen was a mentor, a colleague and a dear friend. I speak for the entire staff here at Ford House when I say that we are deeply saddened by the news of her passing,” Mark Heppner, current president and CEO of Ford House, said in a press release. “Ford House has been forever changed by Kathleen’s leadership and vision, and that legacy will live on.”

Mullins also oversaw the transfer of Fair Lane in Dearborn from the University of Michigan to a new 501(c)(3).

“Our family and the Board of Trustees at Ford House will be forever grateful to Kathleen for her dedication and work to preserve the estate and tell the Ford family story,” Lynn Ford Alandt, chairwoman of the board at Ford House, said in press release. “Even more, though, she was a dear friend and will be truly missed by all who knew her.”

During her time in the Pointes, Mullins was extremely active with the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce and its nonprofit arm, the Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation.

“Kathleen served on the chamber and chamber foundation board for two terms — six years — and was chairman of the board for three of those years,” Jennifer Palms Boettcher, president of the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce and Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation, said via email. “Her phenomenal leadership skills, in tandem with her commitment and love for the Grosse Pointe community, played a key role in the success of the chamber as it stands today. I will forever be grateful for having known her.”

While in metro Detroit, Mullins also served on boards for Grosse Pointe Rotary, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Michigan Humanities Council and the Cultural Alliance of Southeast Michigan, among others.

Mullins was born in Lansing and grew up in the suburb of Holt. A Lynn Fellow at Purdue University, where she earned a Ph.D. in American studies, she held a bachelor’s degree in history from Indiana University and a master’s degree in administration from the University of Notre Dame.

Mullins helmed a number of museums and nonprofits across the country, including being the former executive director for the Northern Indiana Center for History in South Bend, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Montpelier Foundation in Orange, Virginia, and president of the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Her many honors included being named a Sagamore of the Wabash, the highest honor given in Indiana; Mullins received this distinction in 1995. Grosse Pointe Shores Mayor Ted Kedzierski presented her with a proclamation in 2018, shortly before her retirement, to thank her for all she had done for the community.

Even in retirement, Mullins continued to contribute her time and talents to the arts and humanities, serving as a board member and then president of the James City County School Foundation Board and member of the Williamsburg Symphony Board.

She is survived by her husband; her son, Michael Edward Stiso (Agnes Pysz), of Oslo, Norway; and sister, Kris Defore, and nieces Melissa, Jennifer and Heather Defore, all of Holt.

A private service was scheduled, at press time, for Oct. 26 in the Memory Garden at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Williamsburg. A future celebration of life ceremony was being planned at press time, although a date and location hadn’t been determined yet.

Ford House officials said memorial donations can be sent to the Van Elslander Cancer Center through the Ascension St. John Foundation. Ford House officials also said Mullins’ family plans to create a fund in her name for historic Colonial Williamsburg.