A legacy of service: Marilyn Heltzer remembered as a 'force for good'

Marilyn Heltzer served on numerous boards, was president of the Bemidji Rotary Club, supported arts and education organizations and wrote a regular column in the Bemidji Pioneer.

Marilyn Heltzer.jpg
Marilyn Heltzer
Pioneer file photo
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Marilyn Heltzer only lived 24 years of her life in the Bemidji area, but her impact on the community was greater than many people could have in an entire lifetime.

Heltzer died this week at the age of 86. She spent the last eight years in Duluth, where her daughter, Kathy, could care for her as dementia began taking its toll on the vibrant, talented woman.

“I remember when she was moving to Duluth a lot of people asked why she was doing that,” Kathy Heltzer said. “She had this whole life in Bemidji. I just think she had some sense that she was going to need more help. She said one time, ‘You know, Kathleen, in the end, it’s really your family.’ That was true with us.”

Marilyn Fenske was born in Morris, Minn. She attended the University of Minnesota, where she met her husband, Jim Heltzer. They were married in 1957 and raised daughters Kathy, Deborah and Rebecca in St. Louis Park. Jim, a former Beltrami County Commissioner, died in 2011.

For three years, Marilyn taught school to special needs students who needed extra help to graduate from St. Louis Park High School. She began working at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul as a fundraising volunteer. In 1975 she was hired full-time to run the membership department. In 1980, Marilyn became the producer of the Prairie Home Morning Show with host Garrison Keillor, who became a close friend.


When Keillor left the show to concentrate his efforts on his national program, A Prairie Home Companion, Marilyn hired new replacement hosts to create The Morning Show, which is still heard on MPR’s statewide music network. Marilyn went on to become the FM Network Program Director and finally Vice President of Programming. In 1988, Marilyn retired from MPR.

Two years later, Jim and Marilyn moved to their home in Grant Valley Township in Beltrami County. Marilyn’s grandparents were pioneers in the Carr Lake area and ever since she was a child Marilyn visited relatives in the area and had dreams of moving to northern Minnesota.

Within a year of moving to Bemidji, Marilyn was coaxed out of retirement by MPR to be the Bemidji station manager. She soon began serving on numerous nonprofit boards and committees in the area. She retired again from MPR in 1997.

But she certainly did not slow down. Marilyn served on numerous boards, was president of the Bemidji Rotary Club, supported arts and education organizations and wrote a regular column in the Bemidji Pioneer.

“Marilyn leaves a legacy in Bemidji,” said Kristi Booth, MPR’s regional network director based in Bemidji. “Name a volunteer board, and she probably was on it. If you drive by the Beltrami County Historical Society Depot, the Boys and Girls Club building, our public library in Bemidji — Marilyn had a hand in raising the significant funding needed to build those structures.

"She also brought KNBJ, the MPR News station, to Bemidji. She helped shape and strengthen our community, to make it better. Marilyn was a force for good.”

Kathy Heltzer wasn’t surprised to see her mother take on all these projects in retirement.

“One of the things she instilled in me was if you make a commitment you’ve got to keep it,” Kathy said. “She was very clear about that. The idea of not following through or not showing up where you said you were going to be, just never occurred to me.


"Both my parents instilled a sense of public service. You’re here on the planet to make the world a better place for other people, and you should use your skills however you can to do that.”

One of Marilyn’s skills and passions was music.

“When she came to Duluth in 2014 we joined a choir right away called the Echoes of Peace Community Choir,” Kathy said. “She loved that. Then we were founding members of the Victory Chorus, which is a specific chorus for people with cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. We’d sing in that together. We were choir partners.

"The part of your brain that’s music is one of the last things to go. Even when my mom lost the ability to talk she could still sing. So we’d burst into song. We’d sing everywhere, in the car, in the choir. That was really a beautiful thing.”

One of Marilyn’s last columns in the Pioneer was about selling her house and moving to Duluth in 201. It’s indicative of her folksy writing style and sense of humor.

“I’m writing this in the kitchen of the little red cabin that my older sister and I share, on a lake south of Bemidji,” she wrote. “While there have been many changes, this little house is a monument to our childhood, with many memories of early summers here.

"As kids, we went to bed and rose with the sun, played outside except on late afternoons when the mosquitoes got bad. On rainy days we girls played with paper dolls or read books. I don’t know what our brother did. He has his own memories.”

Marilyn's funeral will be at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 6, at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Duluth.

Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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