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Rhoda Altom MC1976 is a Sister Who Inspires

Updated: Apr 18

Welcome to the second installment of The Decades Edition for AXO Omega Alumnae. The Decades Edition is an ongoing series in which Sigma Psi Sigma, the virtual AXO Omega Alumnae Chapter, profiles alumnae from different decades. Each profile celebrates an inspirational and energizing sister. We hope these profiles inspire you to connect with an AXO Omega sister or two.

Introducing Rhoda Altom - MC1976

In 1976, Rhoda became a member of Alpha Chi Omega at Washington State University.

Rhoda has bright blue eyes, a beaming smile, and the warmth of a genuine Coug. My husband and I met her for lunch a couple weeks ago at Tutta Bella on a typical raining afternoon. The conversation was easy and energizing.

Very quickly, I saw that Rhoda was a people connector.  She kept asking me…have you contacted Linda? Have you contacted Katie? Oh! You should contact Alexa! When I told her we were working on a celebration for Kathi Goertzen, she immediately told me she could give me a list of women to contact for quotes. Rhoda remained close with many of her AXOs sisters over the years, and; in a twist of fate, sister Kathi Goertzen interviewed Rhoda’s daughter on KOMO4 in Seattle when Rhoda’s daughter was facing a serious health challenge. More on that in a bit.

The First Woman to Graduate from WSU Construction Management

Fun Fact: The 1970 census estimated that 1.2 percent of this country's 3.4 million construction workers were female.[1] Some people might view Rhoda’s choice to study construction management in the 1970s as a bold move. And yet, when I asked Rhoda about her career choice, she said, “I grew up on a chicken farm. I’ve worked since I was seven years old. No one told me I couldn’t work in construction. I was just naïve.” 

Rhoda endured harassment of all kinds, including one classmate who told her if she showed up on a job site, she would be put in “cement shoes” and that “no one wanted her at a job site.” Department leaders and professors made sexual advances toward her. Rhoda persisted through this harassment and much more as her career bloomed.

Today, she is the Founder and President of the highly successful Milestone Properties.  She co-founded the Washington Women’s Association, Pediatric Epilepsy Research Center at UW, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Center and Angeline’s Day Care. And we’re very proud to report that she received the distinguished WSU Alumni Association (WSUAA) Alumni Achievement Award.

Mama Bear vs. Pediatric Brain Tumors

In 1997, Rhoda’s daughter was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor at age 7. It’s hard to believe, but at that time, research on pediatric brain tumors didn’t exist worldwide or locally. Seattle Children’s focus was treating children as opposed to curing children, and they didn’t have research capabilities. Enter Rhoda. She contacted the head of the Seattle Children's Foundation, a fellow Cougar, Doug Picha, and said, “If I raise $6 million dollars for Children’s, can we start a Brain Tumor Research Program?” Doug agreed, and they raised the money.  She had a condition: There would be no barriers to collaboration with other institutions. This meant researchers worldwide could share data and theories to find solutions quickly.

The Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Center was born at Seattle Children’s Hospital. 

Doug introduced Rhoda to visionary Jim Olson to lead the new research group, and the work was launched and continues today. To meet the fundraising goal, the team needed to be assertive. As Rhoda put it – she had one shot to make sure that if her daughter had a reoccurrence, there would be research to support potential cures.  So, she shamelessly reached out to parents and relatives of children who had brain tumors. In her estimation, 95% of the people she contacted donated. The people who couldn’t donate – reached out to others who could donate. Now, over 100 scientists are working on a cure for pediatric brain tumors and other pediatric brain issues at Seattle Children’s.  Rhoda’s daughter is tumor-free, living happily in Washington, D.C., as a graduate of George Washington University. Read about Rhoda’s contribution to tumor paint.

Stunned, I asked Rhoda – how did you have hope? Her answer was nearly identical to her career choice: "I was naive. No one told me I couldn’t do it.”

Rhoda smiled and added that she may have been a bit unlikable to some people as she drove this effort, but she had to make this happen for her daughter. Pfft. As we mama bears know, sometimes it takes a little spice to get things done.

People, Animals, Nature and So Much More

A passionate conservationist, Rhoda works with worldwide leadership to drive programs that sustain and improve the earth. Environmental leaders and foundation managers recently gathered at Rhoda’s home, where she hosted Jane Goodall's 90th birthday party. How did she get in this position?

In 2015, President Barack Obama appointed Rhoda to the National Parks Foundation where she currently serves as Board Chair. Also, she co-founded National Parks Conservation Association  Rhoda’s leadership in the National Park Foundation gives her the platform to meet and reach out to changemakers to work together on the common goal of addressing climate change. These types of relationships led to her dear friendship with Jane.

What does the NPF do?

As the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation generates private support and builds strategic partnerships to protect and enhance America’s national parks. With millions of privately owned acres within national park boundaries, the National Parks Foundation ensures funds are available to purchase these lands as they become available and preserve the lands for generations.

Get kids into the National Parks! The National Park Foundation works to get all 4th and 5th Graders in the country into National Parks by giving free passes and subsidies to schools to transport kids to National Parks and public lands, giving kids a “nature imprint.”  NPF buys historic sites that tell America’s story, currently focused on Civil Rights sites.


What’s next for Rhoda?

As we’ve read above, Rhoda is an entrepreneur, a trailblazer, and an activist. Her extraordinary life is in full swing and we can’t wait to see what she does next. We are thrilled that she will continue to improve the world by honoring relationships, driving collaboration among worldwide leaders, fundraising for medical discoveries, implementing compassionate programs, and working towards preserving our beautiful natural world.

Rhoda Altom – We are proud to call you Sister!


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