FIFTY OF THE MOST INSPIRING AND ACCOMPLISHED LEADERS FROM ACROSS MINNESOTA.
FIFTY OF THE MOST INSPIRING AND ACCOMPLISHED LEADERS FROM ACROSS MINNESOTA.
INTRODUCING 50 EXCEPTIONAL PEOPLE WHO ARE SHATTERING MYTHS ABOUT AGING AND WRITING THEIR OWN RULES.
They represent so many communities in our great state: the Twin Cities, Duluth, St. Cloud, Bemidji, Grand Marais; people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and tribal backgrounds; people in LGBTQI communities; people who practice faith in a number of ways; individuals with disabilities.
Indeed, these “50 Over 50” are diverse, colorful, and vibrant. Let’s join them in proudly owning and celebrating our age.
When my parents were my age, they were very active.
They traveled, they entertained, they went dancing, and they enjoyed their children and grandchildren. But I often heard my aunts and uncles tell them they should act their age. Back then, older people were to be handled with care—delicately, like precious relics or fragile antiques. And all too often, this mindset caused older people to shrink from aging; to stop believing they could live fully.
Bob Dylan released “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in 1964, when he was 23. Now he’s 76—and less than a year removed from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Thankfully, times are certainly changing for all of the over 50 crowd.
And AARP Minnesota is putting a new spin on aging, shattering those old, outdated myths.
Today we over 50s are setting the stage for the next two generations—our children and grandchildren—so that when they reach our age, their possibilities will not be limited by ageist beliefs. From us, they can learn to celebrate themselves and all those who share their age. Recently, my dear friend Joyce Kennedy put it like this: “I wanted to live life in all of its stages, including being old. I simply decided that as long as I’m gonna live this life, I want to live and enjoy the whole age. It’s not that I didn’t note the signs of each age as I reached it, I simply didn’t worry about it.” Joyce recently celebrated her 88th birthday.
For the second year, AARP Minnesota and Pollen Midwest have come together to celebrate 50 Minnesotans over the age of 50 who, like Bob Dylan and my friend Joyce, are living life on their own terms and improving the lives of others at the same time.
They are having a huge impact in the arts, in business, in community building, in the nonprofit sector, and are disrupting the old, tried and true ways of doing things.
These are awesome individuals, busting myths about aging; business people who are not afraid to take risks; artists whose lives scream loudly that creativity does not slow down in our senior years; community leaders who time and again have proven that age does not limit our ability to build new relationships; people who show that age is not going to stop us from challenging the status quo; and individuals whose lives belie the myth that older folks aren’t as focused on taking care of others as they used to be.
Join AARP Minnesota and Pollen at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) on Tuesday, October 17, to honor and celebrate the 2017 “50 Over 50” honorees. Tickets available now at 50Over50.eventbrite.com.
Meet AARP Minnesota and Pollen’s 2017
DISRUPTORS: Weida Allen, Zarina Baber, Jacquie Berglund, Mark Heimenz & Charlie Rounds, Bernice Koehler Johnson, Syl Jones, Brad Lehrman, Phyllis Moen, Mary Jo Schifsky, Fred Woolman
ARTS: Jeanne Calvit, Nancy Chakrin, Tom Christiansen, Venus DeMars, Steve Heckler, Ellen Michelson, Dr. Pamela Paulson, Jessica Roeder, John Salminen, Hedy Tripp
NONPROFIT: Bob Bardwell, Dr. Richard Bohr, Claire Chang, Paula Hart, Greg Lais, Gary Medin, Gayle Ober, Audrey Suker, Tina Welsh, Otis Zanders
COMMUNITY: Tamara Gray, Cynthia Huse, Andrea Jenkins, Dr. Bernadeia Johnson, Dian Lopez, George Moore, Robin Raplinger, Paul Robinson, Jerry Sparby, Sandy Vargas
BUSINESS: Peg Birk, Nancy Burke & Marg Penn, Julie Burrows, Dave Kvamme, Mark Lacek, Susan Adams Loyd, Jill Pavlak, Marty Weintraub, Shirley Wikner, Dr. Barbara Butts Williams
The 10 awesome people in this category make a habit of tearing down outdated beliefs about aging, and tearing down obstacles to change. They know the truth behind the myth—age doesn’t have to stop us from challenging the status quo. They fight for children who need people in their corner, and challenge stereotypes about religion and gender. They use their skills and experience to build national movements, and to offer one-on-one guidance to people in difficult transitions. They’re grooming the next generation of disruptors, but have no intention of stepping aside just yet. From the ages of 50 to 84, these people are living their lives without limits, and smashing barriers so that we can all do the same.
When it comes to the welfare of children, 70-year-old Weida Allen is never satisfied. The Bloomington resident is relentless in pursuing any and all avenues of advocacy. An eight-year social worker with Anoka County, she earned a master’s degree in social work at age 52. There, she pursued a child protection petition based on parental emotional abuse, one of only a few such cases successfully petitioned in Minnesota. Weida was also the first social worker involved in Ramsey County’s All Children Excel (ACE) program from 1999-2002. Weida now works at the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, helping to provide legal representation, training, and support to attorneys who contribute their time to represent children. She also helps to give Minnesota kids a chance to grow up with their extended family by going the extra mile to locate relatives. In recognition of her dedication, Weida received the Minnesota Lawyer Unsung Legal Heroes Award.
There’s no stopping Zarina Baber. The 60-year-old Andover resident has 30+ years of experience as a community, political, and human rights activist. At the age of 17, she broke the glass ceiling in her hometown of Hyderabad, India when she and friends started the very first Women’s Cricket team. Today, India’s team captain is a woman from this very city, competing globally and second only to England at the 2017 Cricket World Cup. In 1995, she founded Minnesota’s first Muslim volunteer-led Al-Shifa free clinic at the Islamic Center of Minnesota. The clinic provides medical care to underprivileged individuals free of charge and serves as a model for other free clinics locally and nationally. As part of her commitment to fighting for equality, justice, and change, Zarina serves as the vice president of the very first National American Muslim Democratic Caucus, which was launched in February of this year.
WILD LIFE LIVER
Minneapolitan Bernice Koehler Johnson, 84, has accomplished more since she retired than most people do in a lifetime. At age 58, she took a leave of absence from a well-paying job to study Spanish in Mexico. Six months later, she returned to Minnesota, quit her job, and began work on two master’s degrees while spending winters teaching English in Spain, Indonesia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. In 2002, inspired by a Mary Oliver poem that asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?,” Bernice accepted a teaching position in Thailand to improve the lives of persecuted Shan refugees who live on the Thai/Burma border. Although she never imagined herself a fundraiser, Bernice began asking for small donations to support the refugees, and in 2008, launched Schools for Shan Refugees, a nonprofit that continues to grow in scope. This past year the organization supported three schools in Shan migrant workers’ camps and gave scholarships to more than one hundred students who—because they are considered migrants, not refugees—receive no international aid. She spends four months a year in Thailand, giving Shan kids a chance at their own wild and precious lives.
Sixty-one-year-old Brad Lehrman, St. Louis Park, wears a lot of hats. Hat No. 1: attorney with Soffer Charbonnet. Hat No. 2: founder of MOJO MN, an innovative co-op working to reignite Minnesota’s culture of innovation. Hat No. 3: Minnesota Cup judge. Hat No. 4: mentor to startups and students. Hat No. 5: Sabes Jewish Community Center board member. The list goes on … because Brad refuses to slow down. Instead, he’s choosing to evolve personally, professionally, and as a community leader, taking on new challenges and finding creative ways to have an impact. In any given week, you’ll find him training for a triathlon, raising money for charity, or planning engaging ways to bring people together—or often all of the above. Brad is purposeful and energetic; rather than viewing this stage of his life and career as a time to pass the torch, he remains a torchbearer, committed to fueling the growth and success of everyone with whom he interacts. He engages deeply in his work and his relationships, and cheerfully dons the new hats each day brings.
When you interact with Mark Hiemenz, 58, and Charlie Rounds, 62, you get the sense that anything is possible, no matter the odds or the circumstances. Together for 19 years and married for four, the two St. Louis Park men have committed their lives to pursuing their values and helping others do the same. Deeply passionate about social change and champions of the LGBTQ community, they are among a handful of advocates taking an intergenerational approach to their movement work by connecting the older generation of LGBTQ leaders with the next in order to pass on important history and maintain a sense of urgency. Mark and Charlie are also responsible for many successful initiatives: They were the first mentors for Compass, the Carlson School of Management’s first undergraduate LGBTQ student organization, and are working together to create the Mossier, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that connects small businesses in Kenya, Uganda, and the Dominican Republic with young people in Minnesota looking to gain professional experience working internationally.
Most people at 75 are truly retired, but not Fred Woolman. At 75, he’s one of Rochester’s busiest health and fitness professionals. Certified as a group fitness instructor, personal trainer and health coach, he teaches 10 group fitness classes a week, and still finds time to schedule one-on-one personal training and coaching appointments. Dubbed the city’s “fittest old guy,” Fred is the oldest male group fitness instructor in Rochester, and an inspiring role model who walks his talk. Actually, he runs it. He’s completed 22 marathons, including his most recent, at 73, the Moose Mountain Marathon. Run on the Superior Hiking Trail, it’s considered one of our nation’s toughest, but Fred tackled it just the way he does the rest of his life—and the way he encourages others to tackle theirs: simply by trying.
SECOND ACT AUTHOR
Phyllis Moen, 74, Minneapolis, has altered the way individuals and organizations view work, career, family, and gender. Phyllis is one of the first researchers to call out nontraditional work styles as a lever to improve productivity, advocating for workplace flexibility as a way of retaining and engaging older workers. In her most recent book, Encore Adulthood: Boomers on the Edge of Risk, Renewal, and Purpose, Phyllis stresses the importance of embracing the “bonus years” of life expectancy. She also proposes new ways by which Baby Boomers can engage in work that is meaningful yet well-suited to a slower, more flexible lifestyle. Her thoughtful approach to “encore adulthood” has helped people see and embrace new opportunities, no matter their age. One way she continues to do so is via her work with Shift, a community hub for people near retirement who are navigating life and career transitions. Phyllis is a professor of sociology and a McKnight Presidential Chair at the University of Minnesota, a member of the Center on Aging and Workplace Flexibility’s research advisory committee, and founding director of the University of Minnesota Advanced Careers Initiative (UMAC), launching this fall.
Mary Jo Schifsky, Minneapolis, is passionate about engaging, fulfilling, and productive work—for everyone—which is why, at age 67, she’s ramping up, not slowing down. Her mission? To change perceptions about older workers and what they have to offer. To aid her efforts, she’s taking academic classes, leveraging her professional networks, and launching initiatives to establish pathways to employment for people 50+. One such initiative is GenSync, a business she founded to disrupt thinking about current workforce dynamics, and create a fully functioning multi-generational workforce. Mary Jo describes this as “generational synchronicity,” which aims to help us see value, not age, when looking at our coworkers, neighbors, family, friends … and even ourselves. Mary Jo approaches her work with diligence and audacity, reaching out to leaders in all sectors: business, government, higher education, and nonprofit. As a result, she’s a picture-perfect example of how work can shape our lives and the lives of others in amazing ways—no matter our age.
After more than 50 years as a professional journalist and playwright, Syl Jones, 65, discovered that his professions gave him the building blocks for constructing his dream job in narrative medicine. This career change was honored by the Bush Foundation in 2014 with a two-year fellowship, which enabled Syl to research and develop the principles of narrative medicine via seminars at Columbia University and community health gatherings in Minneapolis. Since joining Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) as a resident fellow in narrative medicine, he’s become indispensable: teaching 25 sessions of Narrative Health to patients and providers; researching health care service models; producing videos for hospital special events, including its Light Up The Night Gala. In addition, his play BECAUSE was produced by Mixed Blood Theater and is credited with changing perceptions about people and families facing mental health crises. Syl continues to create new plays for HCMC and the community, including a new one, LILY, about palliative care.
Jacquie Berglund, 51, is pouring on the good work as one of Minneapolis’ first and most prominent social entrepreneurs. She cofounded FINNEGANS, the first beer company in the world to donate 100 percent of its profits back to the community. As CEO of the company, Jacquie constantly develops new and creative ways to make an impact, such as FINNEGANS’ Reverse Food Truck, a food truck that doesn’t sell food, but instead collects and distributes it to those in need. And because Jacquie believes in empowering others, she shares her food truck know-how—everything from budgets to contacts to graphics—so that others can build their own trucks and help their own communities. Not content to rest on her laurels, Jacquie is now flexing her entrepreneurial muscles with FINNEGANS House, a second Minneapolis social venture that will feature a brewery, taproom, and hotel, as well as workspace for other social entrepreneurs.
The 10 honorees in the Arts & Culture category have shown people in places as far away as Australia, Thailand, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo that Minnesota is an arts powerhouse. They’re also shattering the outdated myth that creativity slows down in our senior years. These amazing artists aren’t slowing down—they’re painting, performing theatre, dancing, teaching, collaborating, connecting, rocking, and making sure others of all generations and all backgrounds have the chance to create art of their own. Art is our way of sharing the way we experience the world so we can better understand each other. These 10 artists are still going strong—sharing so much of themselves and helping to create more understanding in the world.
It’s rare that a philanthropic organization focuses on both the arts and aging, yet that’s exactly what Aroha Philanthropies has done, thanks to the thoughtful leadership of Ellen Michelson, 61. As founder and president of the Minneapolis-based private foundation, Ellen believes in the transformative power of the arts and has worked diligently to improve the quality of life of older adults through arts programming and arts advocacy. Aroha has become the leading national funder of artful aging programs, providing more than $4 million in grant support. Ellen is fond of saying, “A life of creativity is a choice and a gift to oneself.” Aroha advocates for an asset-based approach to aging, focusing on programs that emphasize joy, purpose, and social connections. With grants, training, and technical assistance, Aroha is helping organizations serve older adults more effectively. One such program, Seeding Vitality Arts US, drew 200+ applications from nonprofit organizations in 40 states.
Anyone who thinks old people rarely have fun hasn’t met Hedy Tripp. She knows how to both have fun and be very serious about her message. As an artist and social change activist, St. Cloud 68-year-old Hedy Tripp set out to challenge her diagnoses of breast cancer with the spoken word performances. Hedy’s also tackled other critical subjects through her performance art and her work. As artistic director of The Multicultural Children’s Art Connection, she produced the city’s first public performance program to address racism. As coordinator of the nonprofit Create CommUNITY, she established monthly gatherings to forge relationships between St. Cloud’s Somali and African-American communities. And, as co-founder of the St. Cloud chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Hedy has encouraged hundreds of young Asian-American women to become leaders. She is also working to reduce sexual abuse, a cause she took up during her research at St. Cloud State University where it was revealed that an alarming 40 percent of female undergraduate students experience sexual assault.
“Yes, and …” This improv rule of thumb has been helping change perceptions of disability for more than two decades, thanks to Jeanne Calvit, 65, founder, creative director, and executive director of Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Minneapolis. Because of Jeanne’s vocal insistence that artists with disabilities can—and do—create high-quality, professional work, Interact has received critical acclaim nationally and locally. Interact has also won two Ivey Awards for originality and best original music theater score, groundbreaking accomplishments for artists whose work historically never reaches the public eye. Jeanne draws her inspiration from Interact’s diverse, multi-generational ensemble, and artists blossom and shine under her direction. Her uncompromising vision of “radical inclusion” dissolves ideas of who can and who cannot, and unites a wide spectrum of talented artists with and without disabilities from both marginalized and mainstream communities.
Jessica Roeder wants to get everybody dancing! That’s why the 50-year-old Duluthian established Parkinson’s Dance Studio, the only Duluth dance program solely for people with Parkinson’s disease. Six years ago, Jessica traveled to New York City to attend teacher training with Dance for PD®, the Mark Morris Dance Group’s groundbreaking program. There, Jessica learned how to adapt her instruction to meet the needs of dancers, whether they’re seated in wheelchairs, standing at the barre, or gliding across a room. Although the suggested donation is only $3 per person per class, the results are priceless: new friends, greater confidence, and the joy of dancing.
John Salminen, 72, is painting a new picture of “post-retirement” in Duluth. A former Duluth Public Schools art teacher who, in retirement, finally got a chance to focus on his own work, John is now a world-renowned watercolor artist. He has won more than 250 awards in national and international exhibitions, including the American Watercolor Society’s coveted Gold Medal—twice. A retrospective book of his paintings, John Salminen: Master of the Urban Landscape, was published in 2016, and his work has been featured in dozens of books and magazines on five continents. John is an honorary member of the Jiangsu Watercolor Research Institute in China and the first American to be awarded membership in the Australian Watercolor Society. His work is included in permanent collections in Asia and Europe as well as in numerous private and corporate collections throughout the United States. But John doesn’t focus only on his own work. He also serves as judge/juror for national and international exhibitions, teaches classes around the world, and mentors other artists. Thanks to his talent and support of local artists, Duluth is increasingly being recognized as a magnet for the arts.
At a time when others would have slowed down or given up, Nancy Chakrin used art to say “goodbye” to surviving and “hello” to thriving. After an early career as an art director and landscape painter, Nancy hadn’t picked up a brush in 23 years. But in 2000, Nancy used a cancer diagnosis to propel her back into her artistic passion. Before long, this 74-year-old Minnetonka artist began receiving highly regarded commissions and showing her work in juried local and national shows. Her “Healing Blue Waters” collection of 30 paintings has been traveling to medical centers for 17 years. Her newest project features 90 photos of intergenerational, interracial, and intercultural pairs of women, ages 10 to 100, practicing yoga in spectacular settings across the globe. Already exhibited in 28 hospitals & wellness centers in the Upper Midwest, the photos led Nancy to coauthor Friendship: The Art of the Practice, which won a Minnesota Independent Publisher’s Association Gold Medal. In 2012, Nancy was chosen as one of the University of Minnesota Buckman Fellows for Leadership in Philanthropy. The year-long fellowship led her to co-found BreathLogic®, a nonprofit that helps people use the power of their breath to lower blood pressure, reduce stress levels, and promote overall well being.
“When the next generation succeeds, the world succeeds.” These words sum up Dr. Pamela Paulson’s approach to making a difference in the lives of young people, a goal she has focused on since the early 1980s when she helped launch the Perpich Center for Arts Education. Today, Pamela serves as the Center’s director of professional development and resource programs, a position that has helped thousands of teachers improve their teaching skills—and student outcomes—by integrating the arts into the classroom. Pamela was also a leader in developing the arts academic standards that all Minnesota high school graduates must meet. A lifelong advocate for education, she serves as a trustee of the College Board, the organization responsible for Advanced Placement (AP) courses and the SAT test. Pamela also supports programs that help students prepare for college and a career. Throughout it all, she has helped to grow the arts where they have been proven to make a real difference: in the classroom, in curricula, and in hearts and minds of all Minnesota students.
St. Paul’s Steve Heckler, 60, is the driving force behind the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Under his leadership the Festival has grown from a small six-hour event in 1999 to a three-day event that draws more than 40,000 Minnesotans to downtown St. Paul each summer. Thanks to Steve, the Jazz Festival also supports the next generation of jazz musicians by connecting world-class performers with more than 300 students from local music schools. Equally important is Steve’s emphasis on older performers. Whether it’s 75-year-old New Orleans blues legend Dr. John entertaining 7,000 fans at CHS Field, 82-year-old pianist Ellis Marsalis, or 78-year old McCoy Tyner playing at the Mears Park main stage, Steve works hard to bring in older artists who still “shake it up” and disrupt stereotypes about aging. But jazz isn’t the only thing Steve loves. He also loves the Blues and founded the Lowertown Blues Festival as well as ethnic events. He directed the Festival of Nations for eight years. Many don’t realize it but Steve founded Expo 2023, Minnesota’s effort to become one of three finalists being considered as host of the World’s Fair.
NORTH SHORE BRONZER
“I didn’t choose art; art chose me,” says Lutsen sculptor Tom Christiansen. But what Tom did choose was the location of Last Chance Fabricating, the Lutsen gallery and bronze-casting studio he created as a North Shore welcome center. The studio is Tom’s way of giving back to the community, celebrating originality, and creating a connection to the human condition, which has been the focus of his 50-year career as an artist. Working in close collaboration with his clients and using three essential elements—earth, metal, and fire—Tom’s expressive sculptures grace more than a dozen communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as many private collections. To share his talents, Tom hosts Pour at Four, a weekly workshop for anyone who wants to learn the art of bronze sculpting. In addition to creating and promoting art, Tom supports the arts. He contributes to the Grand Marais Art Colony and North House Folk School, and hosts a weekly jazz radio program.
A groundbreaking musician and one of our region’s first out trans artists, Minneapolis glam rocker Venus DeMars leads the glam-punk/trans-band All The Pretty Horses. Her difficult but life-affirming decision to come out publicly as transgender more than 20 years ago helped her find new strength in her talents, which also include writing, painting, and filmmaking. After more than two decades of explosive shows, and exploding outdated perceptions of trans artists, she’s now blowing up stereotypes of aging. “Living our lives and interacting with each other is an act of art in itself,” she says. “Our struggles give us the tools to make a difference. My advice is—value the struggle.” Venus has received national recognition for her work: She’s a recipient of both the McKnight Multidisciplinary Artist and the Bush Artist fellowships, a core artist from the 1980’s Rifle Sport Alternative Art Gallery, and along with her wife, the subject of the 2004 rock-doc Venus of Mars.
The honorees in the Nonprofit category are passionate leaders who do their work with tenacity and grace. Their lives are a powerful rebuke of the myth that as we age, we can’t be as focused on taking care of others. Not this group. They’re creating spaces for healing, promoting cultural dialogue, and making positive community change through philanthropy. They’re changing lives by creating opportunities for growth, and creating adventures in the natural world for people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. Whether they changed careers in midlife, or have been in the nonprofit space for decades, they are working hard to tackle some of the toughest issues facing our communities. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s easier to take on our communities’ toughest challenges when you believe that all problems are solvable. That’s how 66-year-old Audrey Suker of Edina sees the world. Socially minded in every sense, Audrey heads ServeMinnesota, the state’s hub for AmeriCorps service, which supports service opportunities focused on education, affordable housing, employment, and the environment. During Audrey’s tenure, ServeMinnesota has more than tripled the number of AmeriCorps positions and increased state support from $900,000 annually to more than $7 million and private support from $75,000 to $2.5 million. A big believer in both community involvement and the power of data, Audrey combines “extra people-power” and evidence-based practices to create positive change. With a strategic focus on education, these proven AmeriCorps programs are in every corner of the state (77 of the 87 counties) with a commitment to launching students on trajectories of educational and economic success.
A construction accident resulting in paraplegia might have stopped many young men—but not Bob Bardwell. In the 41 years since his accident, he’s touched the lives of more than 100,000 people thanks to Ironwood Springs, a Christian camp, conference, and retreat center he built—and, at age 70, still runs—in his hometown of Stewartville, Minnesota. Begun with nothing more than a dream, Ironwood Springs is now a 120-acre facility that hosts military families, school-aged youth, and people with physical and cognitive challenges. Bob, inspired by his own wheelchair-marathon success, also founded the National Wheelchair Sports Camp, which gives physically challenged kids the opportunity to participate in horseback riding, water skiing, basketball, and other sports. It is the only camp of its kind in the U.S. and one that Ms. Wheelchair America, Tasha Schuh, says helped destroy her “misconception that life in a wheelchair would be boring.” As Bob can also attest, it’s not.
Fifty-six-year-old Claire Chang of Roseville has been a leader in the field of philanthropy and nonprofits for more than 20 years, having served as an early childhood educator, a domestic violence prevention advocate, a community organizer, and a philanthropist. She’s also served as a board member of many of our area’s leading nonprofits, including Hope Communities, Jeremiah Program, PFund Foundation, and the Girl Scouts River Valleys. In addition to helping to create more equitable communities, Claire acts as a mentor to countless young people. Says one of her mentees, “Her passion for living life authentically and taking advantage of every moment is inspiring and contagious. She’s the closest thing to the Energizer Bunny that I’ve seen!”
As senior pastor of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Shoreview, Gary Medin, 65, leads a congregation of 3,200 people who take seriously the church’s mission of “feeding the hungry in heart, body, mind, and spirit.” Thanks to Gary’s lead-by-example style, the congregation has partnered with Feed My Starving Children for the past 10 years, growing its MobilePackTM program to more than 5,000 volunteers packing over 6 million meals to feed 16,000 starving kids for a year. Gary also leads an annual trip to Haiti, where he and other volunteers distribute much-needed food through social service agencies around Port-au-Prince. But providing food isn’t the only way Gary ministers. He also visits the sick, collects coats for the homeless, pounds nails for Habitat for Humanity, and volunteers with local agencies, including Life Haven, a home for teen mothers, and Solid Ground, a nonprofit that uplifts people from homelessness.
Gayle Ober of Mendota Heights, 57, is a lifelong learner who believes in taking risks and stepping out of her comfort zone. She began singing in her church choir and went on to major in vocal performance at the University of Minnesota. She stayed close to her musical roots as she developed her career, earning a Master of Arts in nonprofit management and becoming the executive director of the Dale Warland Singers. She went on to serve as director of arts, culture, and entertainment for the City of St. Paul, and as managing director of classical music programming and partnerships for American Public Media/Minnesota Public Radio, with occasional vocal performances along the way. Now, as the first non-family president of the $62-million George Family Foundation, Gayle has shifted her focus to fostering wholeness in mind, body, spirit, and community. Many are grateful she has, including the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, which received several grants from the Foundation to introduce integrative medicine to its community. Though an illness ended her singing, Gayle still possesses the talent to bring joy with her voice by speaking in public, teaching emerging arts leaders, lending encouragement, and supporting organizations tackling community health issues.
Want to keep up with Minneapolis’ Greg Lais? Strap on your hiking boots! In the last 12 months, the 60-year-old founder of Wilderness Inquiry has led trips to Iceland, Uganda, New Zealand, and more, all designed to demonstrate his belief that the outdoors—and adventure—is for everyone, regardless of age, background, or ability. Thanks to Greg’s efforts, more than 460,000 individuals have enjoyed outdoor adventures that might have been off-limits to them otherwise. In the process, they’ve come to appreciate themselves and others, often seeing ability where they once saw only disability. That’s exactly what happened 40 years ago when Greg first led a group of individuals to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to prove a point: that everyone, regardless of age or ability, could enjoy the wilderness, even without motorized boats and paved portages. Ever since that trip, Greg has carried forward Wilderness Inquiry’s mission of inspiring personal growth, enhancing environmental awareness, and fostering community integration, all the while breaking down barriers to create a more inclusive, more integrated world.
“Respect is earned, not bestowed.” It’s a popular saying, but Otis Zanders doesn’t live by it. Instead, the 62-year-old St. Paul resident bestows a generous “respect line of credit” to everyone he meets. The result? A ministry of love and service that’s focused on helping others create new beginnings. A one-time cotton picker raised in the era of Jim Crow laws, Otis worked for 34 years with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, eventually becoming the first African-American warden of the correctional facility in Red Wing, Minnesota. While there, he encouraged the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and other cultural celebrations, and taught about peacemakers such as Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. He retired in 2011, then launched his encore career as president and CEO of Ujamma Place, a St. Paul nonprofit dedicated to reducing criminal recidivism among African-American men ages 18 to 30. Thanks to Otis, the men of Ujamma place can receive life and career coaching, learn job skills, and get housing and other support. Under Otis’s leadership, Ujamma Place now reaches more than 1,000 men. What’s more, only two percent of those men have returned to prison—compared to the national recidivism rate of 75 percent.
Paula Hart, 62, is at the forefront of challenging us to reimagine aging and caregiving. As president and CEO of Volunteers of America Minnesota and Wisconsin, one of the state’s largest nonprofits, she oversees a $50-million organization that serves more than 24,000 people a year, including many seniors who need housing, healthcare, and disability services. Prior to joining Volunteers of America, Paula served as president and CEO of Dakota Communities and as COO of Courage Center, two Twin Cities nonprofits that help individuals with disabilities. She also served as president of the Women’s Health Leadership Trust and as board member of the American Network of Community Options and Resources. One of the area’s most social-media savvy nonprofit leaders, she’s developed a reputation for embracing fresh ideas and new technology.
During more than five decades spent promoting interchanges between America and Asia, 72-year-old Dr. Richard Bohr has grown from an enthusiastic young man to a wise elder. The constant for the St. Paul resident is his heart and passion for bridging cultural gaps. His career has included serving as deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development, executive director of the Minnesota Trade Office, and Minnesota director of the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia (NCTA), which infuses Asian Studies into 6th-12th grade curricula. Even after retiring from his professorship at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, Richard continues to conduct annual teacher training institutes, advise study abroad programs, teach college-level courses, present at conferences, and mentor junior scholars. He’s also served on the boards of the Minnesota International Center and Chinese Language Village, the Freeman Center of International Economic Policy at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and the International Trade Program at the Carlson School of Management. Richard has also been guest analyst on Minnesota Public Radio and the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Tina Welsh didn’t opt to “relax” when she retired. Even now, at 75, the Duluth resident continues to work as hard as she did throughout her nonprofit career—only now she does it “for free.” A foster mom of 13 now-grown kids and a fierce fighter for social justice, Tina offers advice, serves on boards, and participates in fundraising for a variety of programs, including ones that address reproductive health, sexual and domestic abuse, and homelessness. When it became clear that Duluth needed another food assistance program, Tina stepped up to help coordinate it. She also serves on the St. Louis County Health and Human Services Advisory Committee, and the Duluth DFL Nominating and Endorsement Committee, positions she uses to advocate for changing social policy. Her latest passion is lifelong learning. She’s developed and teaches three courses for the University of Minnesota Duluth’s University for Seniors: Local Women in Politics, Feminist Leadership in Crisis, and Nonprofits—History of Women’s Roles. The work that she’s proudest of, however, is her effort to ensure women in greater Minnesota have access to family planning and abortion services.
The honorees in this category are a diverse and enthusiastic group of volunteers, organizers, and public servants, all with the common goal of strengthening their communities. These community leaders show us that age doesn’t limit our ability to build new relationships and bring people together. They are people of faith helping others walk on a road of spiritual healing. They’re inspiring us to be more open, curious, and loving toward one another. They’re dedicated to learning and encouraging learning in kids and adults alike. Whatever path they’ve taken to this work, they have all dedicated their lives to improving the possibilities for everyone in their community, walking between the worlds of ministry, business, administration, nonprofit management and leadership, proving that our comfort zone often grows with age and experience.
TWIN CITIES TRAILBLAZER
As a queer, black, transgender artist, organizer, and activist with more than 25 years of public service experience, Minneapolitan Andrea Jenkins, 55, is a force to be reckoned with. A prominent leader in the LGBTQ movement for equity in Minnesota and across the nation, she is a talented policy strategist, organizer, and artist who uses every opportunity to inspire people to be more open, curious, and loving toward one another. As the first oral historian for the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota, Andrea is providing a platform for transgender people to share their stories, too many of which include violence, discrimination, harassment, and isolation. Andrea is working tirelessly to advance understanding, inclusion, and equity, leading the way in the City of Minneapolis’ decision to sponsor three Trans Equity Summits and, through her work as an aide to City of Minneapolis councilmembers, she’s helped shape policy. Now, Andrea is running for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council. If she wins, she will become the first transgender person elected to office in Minnesota and one of the highest-ranking transgender elected officials in the country.
Dr. Bernadeia Johnson, 57, is a tireless advocate for people of all ages and all races. As superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, she was responsible for 76 educational sites and approximately 35,000 pre-K-12 students, 65 percent of whom were low-income. Keeping the “school-to-prison” pipeline—a set of harsh discipline practices and suspensions that disproportionately impact African-American students—out of Minneapolis schools was a top priority for Bernadeia. She established the district’s Office of Black Male Student Achievement and placed a moratorium on nonviolent suspensions for students in pre-K through first grade, resulting in a sharp drop in suspensions. To further address inequities in discipline practices, Bernadeia initiated a systematic review of district discipline data by race. She also advocated giving schools more autonomy to personalize the classroom experience for their students and teachers. The Brooklyn Park resident is currently an assistant professor in the education leadership department at the Minnesota State University, and lends her expertise to local community organizations.
Residents of Alexandria, Minnesota, know who to call when they need a dedicated champion for their health and vitality: Dian Lopez. The 73-year-old works with the Alexandria Senior Center, supporting their Age Friendly events, and their work to support healthy active living for people over 50. But perhaps her biggest accomplishment was spearheading the city’s successful 2016 quest to become an AARP “Age-Friendly Community.” Thanks to her efforts, Alexandria was named the 75th such community in the nation and the second in Minnesota, one of only a few non-metro communities to be so honored. A nine-year veteran of the Douglas County Hospital board, Dian has helped expand the organization’s mission by encouraging partnerships with Douglas County Elder Network and Habitat for Humanity. Dian also serves as a member of the Minnesota Hospital Association Trustee Advisory Council, a position she uses to encourage her fellow trustees to become stronger leaders. She’s also an active caretaker of the environment. Her work with the Douglas County Lakes Association has helped keep Alexandria’s lakes free of pollutants so they can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
Eighty-seven-year-old George Moore’s passions have fueled his volunteer work for more than 60 years—living proof of how sharing life experiences can help others. As a colleague notes, “It takes real strength to share hardships, successes, challenges, and fears,” but that’s exactly what George does in order to give others the strength they need to move forward. George cared for his late wife while she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and drew on that experience as he helped found Lakes Area Memory Awareness Advocates. Eight years later, the Baxter, Minnesota, resident continues to fulfill many roles in the organization, including public speaking, fundraising, program development, legislative advocacy, and training. A man of deep faith, for 20 years George has belonged to and participated in Sertoma, one of the oldest service clubs in the U.S., and St. Francis Catholic Church in Brainerd.
In 2003, a Cold Spring high school student brought a gun to school and fatally shot two classmates. For Jerry Sparby, Cold Spring’s Elementary School Principal at the time and a former teacher who knew all three students, the tragedy was life changing. After 37 years in education, he went back to graduate school to study mental health issues, treatment, and community wellness, and now he puts that knowledge and experience to good use. He teaches strategies to advocate for a trauma-informed approach to helping those in crisis at Saint Cloud State University and St. Mary’s University. He volunteers with a “Horses and Healing” program in Santa Barbara, California, to heal traumatized veterans/police and their families. He serves on boards for the Jane Goodall Environmental Science Academy and the LION Youth and Community Services in Central Minnesota. At age 68, Jerry is executive director for Yes Network/Building a World of Love, bringing educational opportunities and leadership programs to low-income families. His mission is “Connecting & Inspiring the World through Play and Love.”
Over the past 20 years, Paul Robinson, 54, of Blaine, has walked a path that connects the worlds of ministry, business, administration, nonprofit management, and leadership development. The common theme along this path is Paul’s passion for living his values, helping others do the same, and showing people that it’s never too late to change. As senior community leadership manager of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation’s James P. Shannon Leadership Institute and former director of the program, Paul helps leaders evaluate and reconnect with their values, embrace their skills, and consider the possibilities—everything from new careers to long-held dreams of traveling, writing screenplays, or returning to school. Individuals often enter the nine-month program feeling frustrated, burned out, or stuck, but they leave feeling renewed and with a clear purpose. That is Paul’s impact—and it has changed the lives of many. As one institute alum notes, “Paul not only helps people return to their core values, but he also helps them see how that clarity and purpose can make a positive impact in their community.”
How about this itinerary? Biking from Minnesota to the east coast in the summer, pedaling south by fall, spending the winter working your way to the west coast, then biking back home to Minnesota by the following summer. This year-long tour is just the latest fitness endurance goal 53-year-old Robin Raplinger of Virginia, Minnesota, has set for himself. At age 38, Robin suffered a stroke, and decided to take his fitness to a higher level. Mission accomplished. His sports and fitness resume is impressive for anyone at any age: gravel and mountain races, loppets and ski fests, canoeing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, kayaking the San Juan Islands, and biking across Washington, Colorado, and New Mexico. Yet Robin still manages to devote considerable time and effort to benefit his community. A former Virginia City Council member, he serves on boards that help youth and victims of domestic violence, works on environmental sustainability and school issues, and—drawing upon his more than 16 years as staff attorney with Legal Aid of Northeast Minnesota—helped indigent people navigate legal issues.
Unlike many executives who retire to unplug, travel, or spend time with the grandkids, Sandy Vargas, 71, is intentionally staying “in the mix.” President and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation until 2016, Sandy recently became a senior executive leadership fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. There, she is helping to shape the school’s engagement initiatives, with an emphasis on communities of color and new immigrants. The position is just the latest chapter in a life dedicated to community improvement, whether through participation in city, county, or state governance, or as head of the Minneapolis Foundation, where she oversaw the distribution of more than $45 million in grants each year, all directed toward social, racial, and economic equity initiatives. It’s no surprise that the Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal recently honored Sandy’s decades of leadership with its “Women in Business Award.”
Fifty-year-old Shoreview resident Tamara Gray is the founder of Rabata, an organization dedicated to promoting positive cultural change through creative educational experiences. With this in mind, Tamara launched Daybreak Press, a social justice bookstore and publishing nonprofit that offers women a platform for enriching the world with literary and scholarly works that are both inspirational and socially conscious. Tamara lived in Syria for 20 years, is a scholar of Islamic theology and law, and is fluent in Arabic. She uses her experiences and gifts to bring people together, no matter their background. Her work includes Ribaat, an online seminary program that works to bring back the female voice in Islamic scholarship and Muslim communities. Tamara published her first book, Joy Jots: Exercises for a Happy Heart in 2014. She is also a doctoral student in leadership, policy, and administration at the University of St. Thomas.
After decades of being active in her Madison, Minnesota community, it would have been easy for 69-year-old Cynthia Huse to say, “I did my part, now it’s your turn.” But that’s not Cynthia’s style. Perhaps that’s why it’s hard to find a local project that doesn’t have her fingerprints on it: the veteran’s memorial, the new swimming pool, recent baseball-field renovations, and ongoing school and library improvements are just a few of the ways Cynthia remains engaged in her community. She recently co-chaired Madison’s application for the Blandin Foundation’s Community Leadership Program and is now leading the charge to recruit dozens of the future leaders of her community to participate in the program. As Chair of the Madison Community Foundation’s advisory board, a position she’s held from day one, Cynthia recruits volunteers to serve on the board and secures city and community partners for projects. She also seeks contributions from local families and businesses. Thanks to her efforts, the foundation and a handful of related funds have received more than $950,465 from 660 donors. Cynthia could likely name each one.
The honorees in this category are breaking down the misconception that pushing yourself professionally and taking risks are only the domain of the young. These business leaders, business owners, and entrepreneurs aren’t just in it for themselves. They’re growing Minnesota’s economy while being good stewards of our resources and talent. They’re building better marketplaces, advocating for diversity and inclusion across the generations, coaching others in their fields, and helping people find and explore new career paths. They’re even creating spaces where we can enjoy craft beer and a great meal after a hard day’s work. Most of all, they’re still learning, and their restless curiosity propels those around them to take chances, push themselves, and do some learning of their own.
A former Pillsbury marketing executive with a Harvard MBA, Edina resident Julie Burrows, 57, used her passion for helping young people to co-found UpTurnships, a nonprofit that provides paid internships and one-on-one coaching for under-resourced college students pursuing business careers. Each summer, about 25 students participate in the program, three-quarters of whom are students of color. These student “UpTurns” participate in internships Monday through Thursday, taking ownership of real-world projects with employer-partner businesses. On Fridays, they meet with Julie and a team of 10 business-savvy coaches for skills training, goal setting, and career planning. The program’s results are impressive: 55 percent of participants have a full-time job offer in hand by April of their senior year, compared to the national average of just 18 percent, and 86 percent land jobs in their fields within just two months of graduating. Equally impressive is that Julie and her team of coaches volunteer their time and talents to the program.
Sixty-eight years-old Dr. Barbara Butts Williams of Minneapolis is an extraordinary business, academic, and community leader. She began her career over 45 years ago in business training and leadership development, rising quickly to several leadership roles at Travelers Insurance (St. Paul Companies). She bought her skills to higher education, joining Capella University where she has held deanships in the School of Education, the School of Business and Technology, and her current position as Executive Dean of External Relationships and Partnerships. In these roles, she has impacted the lives of thousands of adult learners and organizational leaders. A strong advocate for education, health, and economic vitality, Barbara serves on the boards of Allina Health, the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority.
Dave Kvamme, 56, champions diversity in every dimension. As the son of a school administrator who was instrumental in desegregating his district, this comes as no surprise. The Excelsior resident is the CEO of Wells Fargo Minnesota and serves as executive sponsor of Wells Fargo’s Upper Midwest Diversity and Inclusion Council, which is committed to building a five-generation workforce that values workers of all ages. A natural-born leader, Dave is a member of the Itasca Project, an employer-led civic alliance working to reduce disparities in Minnesota, and co-leader of a North Minneapolis team focused on employing African-American males. Locally, Dave also serves on the boards of the Minnesota Business Partnership and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and on the Metropolitan Economic Development Association advisory council and Generation Next’s leadership council. Nationally, he serves on the Consumer Bankers Association’s government relations committee.
STATUS QUO QUESTIONER
“Why isn’t anybody doing this?” That’s the question that drives Mark Lacek’s curiosity. But while many might ask the question, the 60-year old Minneapolis resident finds answers. Answers like WorldPerks, the industry-leading, airline-loyalty program Mark built in his early years at Northwest Airlines. Answers like m.Paani, an award-winning program that leverages telephone company profits to aid India’s poorest communities. And answers like Accessbile360, Mark’s newest venture, which works to make the digital world accessible to those living with physical disabilities or cognitive impairments. And while these “answers” are important to Mark, there is one even closer to his heart: Faith’s Lodge, a haven in the central Wisconsin woods for parents living with the loss of a child. Mark and his wife Susan founded the nonprofit following the loss of their infant daughter, Faith Ann. Their mission is to provide families dealing with similar tragedies a place for communion and counseling. Since 2007, Faith’s Lodge has offered solace to more than 3,500 families, and Mark and Susan have helped raise more than $100,000 for other organizations they hold dear, including Open Arms and the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Twin Cities. MSP Magazine has recognized their efforts by naming the couple to its Volunteer Hall of Fame.
In 2008, Jill Pavlak, St. Paul, traded a successful career in sales for the pursuit of her dream: opening a brewery with her partner, Deb Loch. Jill took restaurant and liquor store jobs to learn the food and beverage industry, visited breweries across the country with Deb, and together saved up their “beer money.” Today, at 52, Jill is living her dream with Urban Growler, Minnesota’s first woman-owned brewery which she co-owns with Deb. In an industry often viewed as belonging to young people, Jill has created a successful brewery that caters to diverse patrons of all ages … and their dogs. Her commitment to the local farm culture is poured into the brewery’s “Plow to Pint” series of beers made from local ingredients. With a mission of “bringing people together through beer,” it’s no surprise that Jill is particularly proud that Urban Growler has been recognized for creating a welcoming space for all.
At 57, Marty Weintraub, Duluth, is a world-renowned marketer in an industry most commonly viewed as a Millennial’s game. Whether driving exceptional marketing results for clients or challenging employees half his age to realize their potential, Marty’s passion inspires everyone he comes in contact with. Marty started in the 1980s as a professional musician who dreamt of playing his songs in stadiums. That same big dreaming continued as his career morphed from music to marketing in the 1990s, and as Marty embraced digital marketing nearly two decades before others recognized its importance. At age 45, a cancer diagnosis gave Marty the drive to found Aimclear, a St. Paul- and Duluth-based marketing agency that has grown from a one-person start-up to a global leader named to Inc. Magazine’s 500/5000 list of Fastest Growing Private Companies six years in a row. Marty and Aimclear foster opportunities for smart, driven young people to establish their own thought leadership and professional credentials, routinely hiring from local colleges and encouraging employees to stay and contribute to their local community. Now with a clean bill of health, Marty is happy to share key life lessons: “Manage like you are dying. Be determined to leave this earth with all emotional and personal ledgers even.”
Back in 1988, when Shirley Wikner’s husband decided to start a one-plane operation to turn his love of flying into a small business, she was skeptical. She was also supportive. She taught herself to run the day-to-day operations of Aviation Charter, and although she and her husband didn’t draw a steady paycheck for the first 20 years, the company did well. Following the death of her husband in 2011, Shirley became CEO. Now 70, the Medina resident has built the Eden Prairie-based fly, fuel, and repair business into a 10-plane, 54-person company that has improved its financial performance and deepened its purpose. In honor of her efforts, Shirley was named Minnesota’s 2017 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. In addition to running the business, Shirley contributes flights, time, and money to many organizations, including LifeSource, a nonprofit that saves lives via organ, eye, and tissue donation. And because such donations are time-critical, she’s often on her phone in the middle of the night arranging life-saving flights.
After many successful years in business and consulting, Minneapolis residents Nancy Burke, 70, and Marg Penn, 70, joined forces to co-found Burke&Penn, a career-coaching and consulting business built on two important beliefs: that people over age 50 have unique challenges—and unique gifts—when it comes to finding the right path forward. This is especially true when dealing with life and career changes, which is why Nancy and Marg encourage everyone they work with to think “outside the past” and instead focus on the future they want to create. The two women don’t let age discrimination derail their optimism. Instead, they challenge stereotypes by helping their clients identify their gifts, amp up their energy, and create portfolio careers. Their multi-faceted approach is working: 85 percent of Burke&Penn’s clients have found new and better work, while also making significant contributions to their employers’ bottom lines. Nancy and Marg’s career coaching pays off as well; their efforts helped one woman start a new job with a 25 percent salary increase the same week she turned 60.
Change is a fact of life, and there’s no one better positioned to help others make the most of that change than Peg Birk, 64, Minneapolis. She’s reinvented her own career numerous times, but more importantly, she’s helped hundreds of others reinvent theirs. Using the wisdom and experience she gained during her time as St. Paul City Attorney and as general counsel for several Fortune 500 companies, Peg is now a highly valued leader who has taken the helm of many prestigious organizations. They include the National Council of Churches, the McKnight Foundation, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, and the Perpich Center for Arts Education. Peg excels in navigating the space between what was and what is yet to be, while finding time in the present to help others do the same.
As president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota, 59-year-old Susan Adams Loyd of Burnsville works hard to foster a marketplace where buyers and sellers trust one another. She also works hard to strengthen communities. Susan is a member of the Minnesota Women’s Economic Roundtable, and a volunteer board member of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and of the Twin Cities Communications Council. She also sits on the boards of Team USA Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Gopher Track Fundraising Committee, two organizations that support young athletes. An athlete herself, Susan recently took up sprinting and quickly became an internationally ranked master sprinter at 60, 100, 200, and 400 meters. In both work and sport, Susan sets a pace that’s hard to catch, especially when you add in the fact that she’s attending Harvard University, where she’s working on a second master’s degree.
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All of us at Pollen and AARP Minnesota owe a great deal of thanks to our selection committee for all the time and energy they invested in helping us bring the “50 Over 50” list to life.