Living a life of great giving: A tribute to my Grandmother Mary
Written by Natalie Rademacher dedicated to her grandmother, Mary Harrelson - June 5, 2022
I should disclose that this story is about someone special to me: my grandma. When asked to write this piece, I was initially hesitant because it’s a big story to tell. My grandma’s passion lies in uplifting others, and there’s so much she does to help her friends, family and community. When I floated the idea to her, she was excited to have her story told, and I’m honored she is letting me be the one to tell it. So please enjoy this story about an incredible woman who is giving back to a community that gave her the world.
Mary Harrelson (formerly Blackwell) spends much of her energy helping others. Many people have benefited from her support, although this is not always obvious because she’s rarely in the spotlight. That’s how she prefers it, working behind the scenes to support the community she grew up in.
My grandma was born in 1948 when Grand Marais had about 800 residents, and everyone knew everybody. A whistle at town hall was blown each day to inform the children it was time for lunch. Mary attended the St. John’s Catholic Church before it became the Northfolk Art School. During her childhood, artist Birney M. Quick started a summer art community that would grow into the Grand Marais Art Colony.
Mary found love and support in the community. Her band teacher taught her she could find creative ways to make things happen. When the band wanted to travel for a competition, bake sales were held and the town chipped in. Later in life, Mary realized how much this community support set her up and shaped her. Her gratitude is a big reason she returned to the North Shore and why she spends so much of her time and energy giving back during what she calls her “great third act” of life.
“I really want this chapter to be about giving back and making the world a better place, in recognizing and supporting people who are doing such good work,” Mary said.
Mary values relationships and connections. When conversing with her, you feel like the most important person in the world because of her attentiveness and encouragement. She often is helping others by supporting their ideas and encouraging them to take action.
When Anna Hamilton set out to build affordable homes in Grand Marais through Hamilton Habitat, Mary wanted to help. She gave Anna funding to buy materials and labor, on the condition that it was paid back with the funds from the sale of the home. After it was paid back, Mary gave the funding back to Anna so the process could be repeated.
Mary gets excited talking about Anna’s work — she is inspired by her ability to take action and find ways to make home ownership in Grand Marais more accessible.
“I'm just so proud of her and want to support what she's doing,” Mary said. “I look at all the young people who just step up and do it. They say, ‘Don’t tell me I can't do it. I'll show you how I'm gonna do it.’ And so I like being supportive of that. I get excited supporting young people.”
Mary married at a young age and moved to southwest Minnesota, a land of corn and soybean fields, where she raised her five children and helped care for her grandchildren — myself included. She missed Lake Superior and the community she grew up in, and while she loved the big open skies of the prairie, she knew she needed to return home someday.
“I felt the call to come back. To live on the shore of Lake Superior to reconnect with the earth, to be still and to learn,” Mary said. “One day, I just knew it was time to go back.”
She closed her private counseling practice in Marshall and moved to Grand Portage almost a decade ago. Retirement did not slow her down. Mary is still a licensed psychologist and continues providing some counseling and aid to the community. She’s on numerous boards and committees and is often finding ways to support others. Her mother, Jean Roberts, lives at the Northshore Health Care Center, and Mary regularly bakes treats for the residents and staff.
While a Grand Portage band member, Mary didn’t explore that part of identity until later in life, despite growing up near the reservation. This was because her grandma was ashamed of being Indigenous due to the discrimination she faced. Mary recalled how her grandma walked in the ditch because she said Indigenous people were not supposed to walk on the roads.
When Mary returned to the region, she embraced the opportunities to learn about her culture, jumping at chances to listen to others, to moose hunt, to forage and tap maple trees. She hopes to go wild ricing.
“I came back because I wanted to sit still on the Earth and learn,” Mary said. “I try to be still and listen to the trees, to the rocks and the water.”
Mary is driven to find ways to help elders to stay in their homes as they age. The Grand Portage reservation doesn’t have a facility for people who can no longer live independently, so some have to move off the reservation to receive care. Mary is searching for ways to change this. She hopes to start hospice care on the reservation, which has received lots of interest, but she said a challenge is not having a large enough population to support it.
There’s a collaboration between the Grand Portage Elderly Nutrition Program, the care facility, hospital and other resources in Cook County to operate a program that provides support for elders. As a trustee of the Northland Foundation—a nonprofit that provides support to people and communities in northeast Minnesota—Mary is helping advocate for elderly care and projects that make it easier for people to stay in their home.
I’ve always known my grandma has a big heart, but it has been an incredible experience hearing others talk about her in this way. Clare Shirley, president of the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic board, mentioned how lucky I am to have Mary as a grandma.
“She listens and processes before she speaks and acts. I think that brings great value to any conversation, somebody who’s that thoughtful,” said Tony Sertich, president and CEO of the Northland Foundation.
Harrelson has served on the Northland board of trustees for six years and has a hand in many parts of the foundation, including the grantmaking process and the development of new programs. In these roles, she brings community perspectives to the board and ensures the foundation’s support is fulfilling the wants and needs of residents.
Mary says she’s lucky to be part of the foundation because they work hard to provide grant funding to help better the community. “They’re very active all over Cook County and in the seven counties,” said. “They have done such good work.”
With the foundation, Mary helped develop Maada’ookiing, an Indigenous-led investment that provides grants to Indigenous individuals so they can pursue efforts that strengthen the community and culture. The name means “the giveaway” in Ojibwe, and the program was developed over many years and conversations by a group of Indigenous people from local tribes and urban areas. The program funds Indigenous people pursuing projects that help build culture, language, food sovereignty and sustainability.
Sertich said Mary values community and relationships and is intentional about ensuring that the foundation is supporting the residents of Grand Portage and Cook County and their needs.
“For somebody who came home, relatively recently, she never lost touch with the community,” Sertich said. “When I travel, everybody knows her…I think that's a testament to the relationships she's developed over her life and her real strong commitment to the people of our community.”