by Sue Webber
Mary Bowen has spent a quarter of a century volunteering with the Key Club, sponsored by the Fridley Kiwanis, at Fridley High School. It’s a job she treasures, and she’s brought her own special brand of warmth and creativity to the task.
“I went in to find out what the Kiwanis organization was like and I fell in love with the kids and what they were doing,” Bowen said. “I started out as a Key Club mom, then I was a grandma and now almost a great-grandma.” Bowen and her husband raised four children and now have 10 grandchildren.
When she first joined the Columbia Heights/Fridley Kiwanis in 1988, Bowen was the group’s first female member. She later became the organization’s first female lieutenant governor in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“The men were very good to me,” Bowen said. “They mentored or helped me. It’s been a very positive experience. The Key Club and Builders Club: that’s why I am in Kiwanis. It’s a really great youth program.”
Key Club at Fridley High School is a student-led community service group. “My purpose is to help the students become key leaders in the community,” Bowen said. “We teach leadership, character development and organizational skills. We prepare them for business and college.”
Some years, Fridley’s Key Club has had 150 members; this year, there were 65 members, Bowen said. Students are required to put in 50 service hours to receive a letter.
Projects have included planting trees on Arbor Day, providing May baskets for senior citizens, raising money for war victims in Darfur, in western Sudan, and the Children’s Medical Network.
One of the activities is a 75-hour teeter-totter marathon held in the family room at Bowen’s home. “We’ve been doing that for 13 years,” she said. “I’ve never had anyone break our code of conduct.”
Bowen, 78, who incorporates fun and merriment in all of the group’s activities, calls herself the “World Oldest Living Teenager,” despite the fact that she also works full time as a self-employed property owner and manager.
A year ago, the Kiwanis chartered a similar club at Fridley Middle School. Called the Builders Club, it now has 45 members. Bowen mentors them, too.
A native of Pipestone, Bowen’s father was a medical doctor who also was a Kiwanian. “He was very dedicated and community-minded,” Bowen said. “He did good deeds without money attached. He taught us to find others to help.”
She recalls hobos getting off the train in Pipestone and coming to their home to ask for food and chores to do. “Sometimes they slept on our porch,” Bowen said. “You can learn a lot by what your parents teach you.”
In addition to her work as a property manager and her work with the Key Club, Bowen has been a member of the Fridley Community Education Advisory Board for 20 years, and a member of a women’s circle at Fridley United Methodist Church for 22 years. She hasn’t missed walking with her kids in a Fridley 49ers parade for 15 years.
“I enjoy being active,” said Bowen, who has lived in Fridley since 1975. Her husband, Dale, a retired Iowa State professor and industry executive, formerly belonged to the downtown Minneapolis Kiwanis, Bowen said. “He supports me 200 percent,” she said.
Bowen originally planned to be a medical doctor, but ultimately earned a degree in food science and education at Iowa State University. She found that she really enjoyed working with young people.
“Every one of them has many talents; they just don’t know what they are,” Bowen said. “Even the shyest ones will surprise you. It’s my joy when they have success in what they do.”
One of the former Key Club students now is a plebe at the Naval Academy, Bowen said.
“Every year I write letters of recommendation for them that open the door,” Bowen said. “Then they fly, and I cry, and then I start all over again. The hardest part is letting them go.”
College students returning home for the summer took Bowen out for lunch recently. And she enjoys their emails, visits and Facebook updates.
“It’s been something special in my life,” said Bowen, who loves the “Crazy Mary” (or Crzy Mry) handle she has acquired. “Life is very stressful for kids nowadays,” Bowen said. “The pace is phenomenal. They need more humor in life. I’m comic relief.”
The craziness comes out in her signature pink flamingo accessories, including a homemade pink flamingo outfit that has become the logo for Fridley’s Key Club. Bowen’s hot pink outfit includes boas, pink necklaces, orange swim flippers and a flamingo head.
“Every time we install kids in the Key Club, they get something flamingo-related: glasses, hats, pink boas,” Bowen said. “Every time I see something new [flamingo accessories in stores], I’m on top of it.”
But Bowen emphasizes to the teens that there’s a time to be crazy, and a time to be serious.
“Oh, my gosh, the talent within the Key Club is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Bowen. She admits that the job takes energy, and a lot of patience. “The first thing I learned was to be flexible,” Bowen said.
On July 5, Bowen was slated to help escort two busloads of Fridley High School teens to the International Kiwanis Club convention in Atlanta, expected to draw 3,000 people from all over the world.
“The beauty of my role is that I can do things the teachers can’t,” Bowen said. “I can hug the kids, and sometimes they come to me for advice. Some of them don’t have a grandma or a mother in their lives. I hope they know I love them.”
In her usual whimsical style, Bowen tells kids who are graduating that she expects to sit in a rocking chair, toothless, and hold the Bible when any one of them becomes president of the United States.
She also jokingly tells them she expects to be a flower girl in the wedding, when any one of them gets married.
In June 2015, she was asked to be a flower girl for Fridley High School graduate Lindsey Bowman, who got married at a camp in northern Minnesota. “I fought and fought against it, but the bride’s mother called me and then her fiancé called me and both of them said she’d had her heart set on it for years,” Bowen said. And so there she was in the wedding party, wearing a blue shantung dress and carrying a round ball of flowers.
“I never thought I’d be asked to do it,” Bowen said.