Cats helped seal a longtime bond between Mary Dupuis and Martha Kolln.
Back at the start of their friendship, the women were having dinner on Dupuis’ farm in Benner Township. Joining them were Japanese teachers of English, at Penn State for a summer training program.
Dupuis, finishing her doctorate in English education, and Kolln, working in the English department, had met on the team in charge of the teachers.
“We started talking and discovered we had many interests in common,” Dupuis said.
That summer, she and Kolln helped organize social events for the teachers to practice their English. For the dinner, Dupuis locked all her farm cats in the milk house so they wouldn’t bother guests as they sat outside and ate.
At least that was the plan until someone set the prisoners free.
“When I turned around, there was this poor Japanese fellow with his plate on his lap, and there were four cats on his plate,” Dupuis recalled.
About 44 years later, the two friends are still sharing laughs.
And they’re still partners in the fight against illiteracy.
Dupuis and Kolln have been longtime anchors for the Mid-State Literacy Council, both instrumental in helping the organization survive losing almost all of its state and federal funding three years ago.
“Without their leadership, I think we might have closed,” said Amy Wilson, executive director of the council.
On Monday, the council will pay tribute to the volunteers’ service with a dinner at Celebration Hall in College Township. Proceeds will benefit the council’s adult literacy scholarships.
At the dinner, six local authors will sign their books — an appropriate part of an evening honoring two people devoted to the English language.
Dupuis, 77, a retired Penn State education professor and dean who began as a college English teacher, has written several books about reading and writing instruction. She’s an expert on content area reading and programs to build math and science skills for girls.
Kolln, 81, taught in the Penn State English department for 23 years, focusing on grammar, editing, composition and rhetoric before retiring as an associate professor in 1993. An expert on writing, she’s the author of four textbooks, all but one about grammar.
Besides a passion for education and their native tongue, they also shared a neighborhood for many years.
Kolln and her husband owned a small winery about a mile down Buffalo Run Road from the Dupuis farm, now the home of Dupuis’ daughter, Betsy Dupuis.
Their children grew up together. Their husbands both claim American Indian ancestry. In the winter, the families rocketed down hills on toboggans. They met for summer picnics.
“Mary has been like a sister to me,” Kolln said.
Dupuis returns the admiration: “She’s a strong lady.”
Shortly after joining Mid-State in 1996, Dupuis thought so highly of Kolln that she recruited her friend.
“I brought Martha in and said, ‘We need you,’ and she has been a champion for it ever since,” Dupuis said.
Kolln went on to start a summer reading program at the Bald Eagle Area School District, leading to thousands of donated books for children. For years, she and Dupuis served side by side on the board, directing family literacy programs that helped parents and their children learn to read.
But though Kolln has stepped down from the board, she and Dupuis still serve as co-chairwomen of the Ron and Mary Maxwell Community Spelling Bee, the council’s primary fundraiser.
“Martha gathers all the words,” Wilson said. “She’s kind of the wordsmith.”
When the council lost almost 90 percent of its funding, about $225,000, the duo put their considerable minds together and brainstormed.
“We talked a good bit over coffee about what would be the best route to go,” Dupuis said.
They refused to let the council fold.
Along with others, they started new funding sources such as the ever-popular crossword puzzle competition. They beat the bushes for donors.
“We just had a mailing,” Kolln recalled. “We wrote personal notes on all the letters that went to people we knew. We tried to increase the list.”
Their hard work helped pull the council back from the brink. Dupuis looks back on their accomplishments with pride.
“The thing that’s most satisfying for me, and I expect it’s one she would most agree on, is seeing the council mature,” she said.
Kolln indeed feels the same, but modestly deflects credit to her friend.
“She’s the one who should be honored,” she said. “I’m happy they included me, too.”
Wilson said both deserve equal praise.
“They’re really quite amazing,” she said.
Their youngest children are middle-aged. They’re no longer neighbors. But time hasn’t dimmed their mutual love of books, or their fondness for each other.
Their story continues.
“We just have a good time together,” Dupuis said. “We just do silly things together. Right now, we more just get together for a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup for lunch and just chat.
“That’s the part that remains.”