One of Nancy Mohr’s many gifts as a local leader and change agent was her thoughtful and disarming hospitality. (Photo: Jeff Wojtaszek for MainLine Today)

 

With Gratitude for the Life and Work of Nancy L. Mohr, 1933–August 14, 2021

The character of Kennett Square today is a reflection of an infinite number of individual and corporate decisions—about what organizations, businesses, and neighborhoods to build, and about where, and why, to build them.

Some of those who have gone before have left books (e.g., Bayard Taylor), larger-than-life fame (e.g., Herb Pennock), or iconic buildings that stand testament to forward thinking and community investment (e.g., Michael Walker)—all of which remind future generations of their lives and impact here. Countless others have left legacies that are woven into the very pattern of our lives in Southern Chester County. Nancy Mohr was one of those. She dedicated decades of her life to shaping this place in ways so fundamental that it’s impossible to imagine the Kennett we know and love today without the imprint of her passionate and tireless effort to improve and preserve this place for its people.

It will come as no surprise to any longtime Kennettian that Mohr’s work shaping a larger, brighter, and more sustainable vision for Kennett Square began with a conversation with Tom Swett. Swett first met Mohr in 1974 at Upland Country Day School, where Mohr brought her children to school. In his capacity as assistant headmaster, Swett had been given the responsibility of launching a multi-million dollar capital campaign, and Mohr’s innate gifts immediately impressed him.

“No one gives to needs, but rather to opportunities,” he says, “and Nancy caught on with alacrity to the positive language of success and hope. She also had the uncanny ability to recognize a situation she’d never seen before and make good of it.” These qualities and others enabled Mohr to go on to play a pivotal role in many initiatives for land conservation and planning in Chester County in the decades to follow. But it all began with bringing Kennett Square back to life.

 

Revitalizing Kennett Square

The revitalization of Kennett Square, at a time when State Street was a run-down, vacant shadow of its present vibrant self, was successful in large part because of Mohr’s commitment to championing the good and to gathering others to collaborate in a spirit of positivity. In addition to being able and willing to take on the responsibility for a new initiative and grow into it herself, Swett says, “Mohr was also able to share an idea and put the right people in place to implement the idea as if it were their own.” A beautiful example of this, he says, is Mary Hutchins and her longtime leadership of the Kennett Square Revitalization Task Force.

When Genesis HealthCare was still a small company in the mid-1980s, Michael Walker started the Kennett Main Street Association. A decade later, the organization was reconstituted as a merchant-led group called the Kennett Square Business Association. Then, in the late 1990s, Nancy Mohr, along with architect Jeff Norman, attorney Scudder Stevens, and businesswoman Donna Hood, created the nonprofit Kennett Square Revitalization Task Force—the organization that is now called Historic Kennett Square—and hired Hutchins. Swett agreed to be chairman of the board, and he and Hutchins read and studied Pennsylvania’s guidelines for what was called the Main Street Approach, a community-driven, comprehensive strategy to revitalize downtown and business districts. “Businesses, investors, home owners, nonprofits—everyone had the opportunity to be part of this,” Swett says. “Share the vision” was Mohr’s tagline, says Hutchins, and Chestnut Hill was the model.

 

The Power of Good—and Homemade Scones—to Bring about Collective Action

Mohr had the vision, and she also had lots of energy to start implementing this revitalization. “Nancy was a real dynamo,” Hutchins says. “She held visioning sessions with the Board and community charettes. In many ways, Kennett was before its time. Nancy was instrumental in starting the MLK Breakfast and she was a strong supporter of a new library—and of keeping it here in the Borough.” As forward-thinking as Mohr was, she also knew the power of old-fashioned hospitality to bring people together. Hutchins smiles as she recalls how Mohr brought homemade scones, baked with love from her recipe from Harrods, to every board meeting (see below for the recipe).

“I learned so much from Nancy. It was a pleasure to work with her,” says Hutchins, who is now applying her leadership skills and experience in a development position for the new Kennett Library. Early Kennett Square Revitalization Task Force board member Jeff Norman, who has been the driving force behind the Kennett Brewfest since its beginnings over 20 years ago, echoes Hutchins’ sentiments. “Nancy’s insight, guidance, organizational skills, and most of all patience, were invaluable to me,” Norman says. “I learned so much from her and am forever grateful.” Mohr saw the good in people and was also committed to guiding, resourcing, and encouraging those she found and entrusted with implementing this visionary work.

This new incarnation of Kennett’s Main Street organization also came into being at a pivotal moment of growth for Genesis HealthCare, Hutchins notes. At the time, Walker was building the new Genesis corporate headquarters in the heart of Kennett Square, and he chose not to include a cafeteria so employees would support local restaurants. These decisions, when it would have been far easier and less expensive to build the company headquarters elsewhere, had a profound impact on the struggling downtown he had chosen to adopt as his hometown. They also came at a key point to support and complement the work of the Kennett Square Revitalization Task Force.

Such work is never without its battles. “Back in the 1990s Nancy fought hard to keep Walmart out of Kennett. At that time, Walmarts were the demise of many small towns,” Hutchins says. “She was successful in delaying its arrival for a number of years. During that time, she helped the town get back on its feet and helped new small businesses to get established.”

Mohr also knew that the Kennett Square Revitalization Task Force would need a home, and a central presence in town, so she found grant funding to buy and renovate 106 West State Street. The building, which had been a lawnmower repair shop, required a major overhaul in order to provide office space for not only the Kennett Square Revitalization Task Force, but also the United Way of Southern Chester County and others.

Mohr’s impact in Kennett Square was multi-faceted. Her early interest and championing of the KSQ Farmers Market, for example, helped to make it happen. “Nancy was a huge force, and very emphatic in the most charming way,” says Historic Kennett Square’s Community Engagement Manager Claire Murray. “She would get this twinkle in her eye and you couldn’t refuse. When she first brought me to the Kennett Farmers Market planning meeting, I thought there was no way we could start a market in Kennett in such a short space of time—but we did. Nancy’s passion was contagious. She was vibrant, and she made you believe Kennett was, and could be, vibrant as well.” The KSQ Farmers Market is now a key program of Historic Kennett Square.

 

A Broader Vision for Chester County

The potential Mohr saw in Mary Hutchins to implement the revitalization of Kennett Square was just the first part of her vision, Swett says. “Nancy saw in Mary someone who could handle the responsibilities of the evolution from a Main Street organization to a regional planning organization.” The 2016 Kennett Region Economic Development Study grew out of this vision, as did Chester County 2020, a nonprofit founded by Mohr to be a positive, nonpartisan, and trusted change agent whose mission is to educate and foster discussions around protecting natural resources and making urban centers more livable as the county’s population continues to increase.

“It’s important to set the context of what happened, and why, as a guideline for the future,” Swett says. “It’s important to understand this focus on development in a gracefully managed area, and to connect it to land preservation, and the vision of people like Frolic Weymouth with the Brandywine Conservancy. Mohr was a specialist at approaching landowners about property easements.” Swett underlines the importance of the grounded framework created by Chester County Commissioners Colin Hanna, Karen Martynick, and Andy Dinniman, and their planning work that complemented the efforts of entrepreneurs like Michael Walker and nonprofits like the Kennett Square Revitalization Task Force (now Historic Kennett Square).

What Swett does not say is that he, too, continues to work to bring this vision, that he and Mohr and many others cast, to reality. In addition to being chairman emeritus of the Kennett Library Board of Trustees and a key champion of the $20 million campaign to build the new Kennett Library, Swett has dedicated many years to serving on the boards of nonprofits including Historic Kennett Square and the Chester County Hospital Foundation. As the owner of the five apartments and three townhomes at 316 South Broad Street (boyhood home of the aforementioned Herb Pennock, legendary Yankees pitcher and American Baseball Hall of Famer), Swett also identifies with the needs and concerns of local businessmen. Hutchins, too, is continuing to bring this vision to life through her work with the Kennett Library.

“All of us at HKS are grateful for Nancy Mohr’s legacy, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family, as they grieve her loss. None of us would be here today, doing what we love to do, helping to keep Kennett a vibrant and thriving community for local businesses and residents, if it hadn’t been for her vision and dedication,” says HKS Executive Director Bo Wright. “Our entire community owes Nancy a debt of gratitude for helping to preserve and initiate so many things that we love about Kennett and Southern Chester County.” As HKS prepares to kick off the inaugural KSQ 2021–22 Speaker Series: How We Build Matters, Wright says, he hopes the community will join in engaging in these conversations and continuing to build on Mohr’s forward-thinking legacy for this place she loved.

Mary Hutchins fondly recalls seeing Nancy and her husband John at Talula’s Table, where they went for coffee and scones every morning after the Y. For those who would like to try their hand at baking her famous scones, Mohr’s recipe, adapted from her Harrods cookbook, follows:

 

Nancy Mohr’s Scones, à la Harrods’ Cookbook

Sift together:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • pinch of salt

Cut in 6 tablespoons butter, margarine, or shortening

Optional: add ½ cup raisins, coconut, or dried cranberries before adding the milk

Stir in 1 cup milk, then turn out on a floured surface. Pat down gently until about ½ inch thick, cut scones. Brush lightly with an egg wash, and bake at 400 degrees until golden (about 12–14 minutes).

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