Mary Jane Milbrath Webb
Mary Jane Milbrath Webb was born in Walla Walla, Washington on Aug. 9, 1936. She lived on Pine Street with her parents, Homer and Della Milbrath, and her older brother Skip, a saxophone player. Mary Jane loved her hometown. Diversions included perusing grocery store shelves with her dad to find the most exotic foods to try and attending variety shows performed by inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary.
The latter may have spurred her lifelong love of music. She won the office of president of the sixth grade at Washington Elementary School by singing "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and played first chair clarinet in the school band. She and her friend Rose Bowman sat on the curb outside their houses and sang, convinced that Hollywood producers would drive by and discover them.
Mary Jane was proud of her blue-collar roots and worked in the local pea cannery during high school. She was tall, so she got the job of stirring brine. She used the time well, reading novels while she stirred.
After graduating from Walla Walla High School, she attended the University of Idaho -- choosing the school because it seemed glamorous to go out of state, even if it was only across the state line.
She studied bacteriology and pledged Delta Gamma. Thanks to her choice of sorority, she met Jay Webb, whom she married in 1961. Jay had a work-study job serving meals at the Delta Gamma house. He thought Mary Jane was beautiful and won her heart by giving her extra-large helpings on her dinner plate.
When she was just 23, she traveled alone to Europe where she ate the best caviar in the world, saw the bodies of Lenin and Stalin lying in state, and wrote copious postcards back to Pine Street in her exacting script.
After graduating from the University of Idaho, she served a public health internship at Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco and got her first job in the early 1960s in the laboratory division of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. This was an era when women had to wear skirts to work, and everyone had to sign a pledge that they were not communists.
Mary Jane helped pioneer newborn screening for the genetic condition phenylketonuria (PKU) which can compromise an infant's mental development if not detected early. She advocated for legislation establishing PKU screening statewide. Under her leadership, the state created its first genetics services program. She coordinated genetics clinics, bringing doctors and experts to the state to meet with Idaho families. Many of those doctors remained dear friends long after her retirement.
She was a member of the executive committee of the Warm Springs Center (now the Warm Springs Children's Home) and served on the advisory board of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Boise State University. She was a member of the Boise Junior League.
Mary Jane's professional accomplishments were many, but she took particular delight in her life as a performer. She played starring roles in "Side by Side by Sondheim" and "Vaudeville Revisited" in the 1980s. She was a member of the board of directors of the Morrison Center Musical Theatre, and was a director of "My Fair Lady," the Morrison Center's inaugural production in 1984. One of her favorite roles was singing the love song "Lili Marlene" as Marlene Dietrich in tuxedo dress and top hat on the Morrison Center stage in the 1990s. She sang in the Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale for four decades and enjoyed regular lunches with her fellow altos.
Mary Jane had many trademarks: the metallic pink lipstick she discovered in the 1960s and never gave up because it looked so good on her, the habit of reaching down to take one last drink of water when she left the dinner table, and kissing her arm to thank her body for doing such a good job.
She loved rescue dogs, warm, gloomy weather, Walla Walla sweet onions, Bronco basketball, zinnias, progressive politics, good bourbon, and growing unusual tomatoes. One year, she grew 27 varieties and hosted a legendary tomato tasting party. In her late 70s, she sea kayaked off the coast of Mexico and forded icy waters in the slot canyons of Utah.
Her life was her own, one of free thought, curiosity, and independence until her last day.
She leaves behind a daughter, Anna Webb, a son, Peter Webb, a daughter-in-law, Angenie McCleary, a grandson, August Jay McCleary Webb, and a circle of friends who have become family. Her husband, Jay Webb, an attorney, former Idaho legislator and Boise city councilman died in 2011.
A celebration of Mary Jane's life will take place at a later date. In lieu of flowers, grow a tomato in her honor this summer or consider making a donation to an organization of your choice.
Published in Idaho Statesman on Mar. 29, 2020.