GENERATIONS: The secret to retirement: Follow your passions

When Mary Knox-Johnson retired after 32 years of teaching English, speech, and theater at West Fargo (N.D.) High School, she had three items on her bucket list: swim with dolphins, visit her aunt in Georgia, and write a book -- all of which she a...

Mary Knox-Johnson and her husband, Dwayne, work together on building sets for the Bemidji Community Theater. Photo by Polly Scotland.
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When Mary Knox-Johnson retired after 32 years of teaching English, speech, and theater at West Fargo (N.D.) High School, she had three items on her bucket list: swim with dolphins, visit her aunt in Georgia, and write a book -- all of which she accomplished in just one year.

That was just about enough retirement for Mary. She then moved to Bemidji to teach speech at BSU as an adjunct professor and started directing plays through Community Theater.

“My folks had a summer cabin (on Big Bass Lake) since before I was born,” Mary tells me, “so I used to come here and spend my summers. I always knew I wanted to retire here.” Moving to Bemidji came a little sooner than she’d expected, though. When BSU offered her the adjunct position, she had just days to relocate and prepare. Her husband, Dwayne, encouraged her to take the job and assured her that he’d get the shop he was building on the property ready for winter. They ended up living in the shop for a few years while they built a home there.

“I’ve been in Bemidji 18 years now,” Mary says, “and I’m still loving it. I have always loved Bemidji. I call it the mecca of art with the people who are drawn here. It’s not the big city -- there’s camaraderie. You can know people.”

Mary describes herself as having been shy to a handicapping degree back at Shanley High School in Fargo. Once she faced her fears in a required speech class at North Dakota State University, she started forcing herself to break out of that shyness. Today it takes very little to get Mary talking, especially about her passion: theater.


After working with high school students at West Fargo, she transitioned to Community Theater in Bemidji.

“My background was high school, so when I first came to Community Theater, I didn’t know what to expect.” Holding auditions for people of all ages took some adjustment, she recalls, but after her first few shows, she realized one major advantage: “Now I don’t have to make an 18-year-old look like he’s Tevye and 65. I can take someone who’s 60 and make him look 65.”  

“When you get your part,” says Julia Montebello, who has acted in several of Mary’s plays, “Mary has you write a short analysis” to help the actor get to know her character. Julia says Mary allows the actors to bring their characters to life and is open to ideas from them. Actors will hear, “What are you doing?” or “Where are you supposed to be?” when they need reminding or redirection, but once the show is running, Mary takes the time to write personal notes to the cast members, thanking them for their contributions.

Currently, Mary is rehearsing for “The Reluctant Dragon,” with a cast of 33 (smaller than many she’s done) and an age range of 7 to 60-something. Dwayne, Mary’s husband, does the scenic construction. “He and I design together,” she says. She has the vision, “and he puts it into three dimensions so it works. He’s very good at that. He can build just about anything. If we need a dragon to fly, he can make it fly.”

With Community Theater’s newly acquired home on Beltrami Avenue, Mary says “now we have a new space we call home and we’re absolutely loving it.” Previously, Community Theater had to work around the calendars of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse and other entities and had no central storage or consistent rehearsal space. Their new home has made it possible to work on more than one thing at a time.

Just last month, she says, “Kristine (Cannon) was rehearsing “Death of Dr. Valentine” here, and I was rehearsing “Reluctant Dragon” there, and there was something else going on in the basement, and we had room for it all!”

Costuming is Mary’s background and her particular forte. “My art is putting colors together and coming up with designs for costuming. I love doing it. I will spend hours trying to find the right color or trim or the right pattern to use.”

Although Mary’s schedule may not sound much like retirement, she insists, “I’m still retired because I can stay home whenever I want to, and I don’t get paid much.” (Any payment is dependent upon grants.)


In what spare time she has, she enjoys reading, rug weaving and dabbling in other arts. For the past several years, she has also spent hundreds of hours researching gangster activity in the Bemidji area. Stories she’s heard since those childhood days on Big Bass Lake inspired her to search out what facts she can find. Maybe someday she’ll write a play that blends the myths and the facts.

But when I ask what she does to relax, Mary’s thoughts return to theater: “When there’s no one here and I can get the fabrics out and start designing -- who’s going to wear what, and what colors -- to me, that’s relaxing. When I can sit down and look at set designs and think about how I want that to come along, that’s relaxing. I just love doing it.”

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