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Women 360: 'All roads lead to DL,' Mary Beth Gilsdorf embodies creative, community leadership

After moving to Arizona for college, Mary Beth Gilsdorf returned to her hometown of Detroit Lakes to help run the family business and raise a family of her own; now, she’s an influential and creative community leader -- and so are her husband and two daughters. “Mary Beth’s love and pride for Detroit Lakes shows through in every project she is involved in. From serving on committees to volunteering at events to driving the train on major projects, she always brings a smile and endless energy to make our community a better place to be," said Becky Mitchell, director of the Becker County Museum.

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Mary Beth Gilsdorf stands next to "Monarch," a sailboat sculpture painted by artist Jill Osiecki for the 150 Sails Up in DL project, a community art project spearheaded by Gilsdorf. "Monarch" is displayed inside Norby Flats — the downtown commercial and apartment complex created within the former Norby's Department Store building. Mary Beth's family established Norby's in the early 1900s and it stayed in the family for 112 years until its closure in 2018. (Vicki Gerdes / Women 360)

Editor's Note: The following originally appeared as the cover story of the Detroit Lakes Tribune's Women 360 magazine, which was included as a free insert in the Dec. 12, 2021 issue of the Tribune. Read the magazine in its entirety HERE online, or for a print copy of the magazine, pick up a copy of the Dec. 12 Tribune on newsstands now.

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As a teenager, Mary Beth Norby set her sights on moving away from her hometown of Detroit Lakes — far away, to Arizona.

“I planned on it all the way through junior high and high school,” she says, noting that she had fallen in love with Phoenix during a family vacation there.

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“It was so different — and I loved that,” she explains, adding that she was also lured by Arizona State’s reputable engineering program, which fit well with her career plans.

After graduating from college, she got her first job in Arizona, working at Motorola — an experience she describes as “mind-boggling.”

“The company had its own post office, license renewal office, drug store — all the things you might have to leave work for, were right there,” she says. “The number of employees at the facility where I worked was more than (the population of) the city of Detroit Lakes.”

While she was in Arizona, Mary Beth met and married artist Hans Gilsdorf, who happened to have grown up spending the summers at his family’s home on Pelican Lake, south of Detroit Lakes.

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Kendra, Hans, Megan and Mary Beth Gilsdorf were all on hand for the unveiling of the first Detroit Lakes Polar Fest Ice Palace in 2018. (Contributed / Mary Beth Gilsdorf / Women 360)

“I spent five years there (at Motorola), and during year four of that, Hans and I got married,” Mary Beth recalls.

It was barely a year into their marriage when the couple started feeling the pull of their Minnesota roots.

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“We both decided that Minnesota was calling,” she says, “and we both got jobs in the metro area. I got a job in Northfield, and he got a job in New Hope, so we split the difference and lived in Burnsville. We were there for five years.”

After welcoming their first daughter, Kendra, Mary Beth found herself contemplating a return to her hometown.

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Kendra Gilsdorf, center, worked alongside pals Hope Hansen and Nick Larson in directing a summer musical theater camp at Detroit Lakes' Historic Holmes Theatre in June 2021. Gilsdorf served as artistic director. (Detroit Lakes Tribune File Photo)

“There is a strong draw to this community… I definitely love it,” she says.

In 1999, they made the leap.

“My brother and sister were both working at the store (Norby’s Department Store in Detroit Lakes), and they said that if I was ever thinking about or wanting to come back, this would be a good time,” Mary Beth says. “So Hans and I made the ‘pro and con’ list, and while the list of ‘cons’ was longer, the ‘pros’ were the important things.”

Mary Beth was pregnant with second daughter Megan at the time of the move, so she divided her time between being a mom and working as vice president of Norby’s. She ran the longtime family business alongside siblings Michael and Jean, while Hans took on a series of public and private art projects.

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Mary Beth Gilsdorf, right, with her siblings and co-owners of the former Norby's Department Store, Jean Anderson and Michael Norby, in the store shortly before its closure in 2018. (Detroit Lakes Tribune File Photo)

From the “Sunny in DL” sunfish sculptures to the creation of the Detroit Lakes Ice Palaces, and numerous creative endeavors in-between, Hans has made his mark on the community, and continues to do so.

“I was worried about Hans at first, but he’s found his people,” Mary Beth says with a smile.

She has had a hand in more than a few of her husband’s projects over the years, mainly on the logistics end.

“Hans and I don’t have a lot of overlapping skills,” she says. “We complement each other well.”

Matriarch of ‘The Gilsdorf Girls’

Mary Beth has taken on a number of community projects of her own, too, including the establishment of a new summer art festival, Street Faire at the Lakes (in 2001), and leading a campaign to “Crush the Rush” — i.e., eradicate the flowering rush that was ruining Detroit Lakes’ famed City Beach.

“The DNR had kind of pooh-poohed (the idea) that the weeds could be pulled and it’d make a difference, but look at it now,” says Amy Stoller Stearns, a longtime friend of the Gilsdorfs. “Mary Beth was right out there in the lake, pulling flowering rush stalk by stalk.”

When Amy first met Mary Beth after moving to Detroit Lakes in the early 2000s, one of the first things her new friend told her was that, “All roads lead to DL.”

“Of course, I kind of laughed at that, and then I found it to be somewhat true,” Amy says. “It’s surprising how many ‘roads’ really do lead to DL — but more than that, I think the statement says a lot about Mary Beth. She grew up in Detroit Lakes and went off to college in Arizona and then lived for a time in the Twin Cities, but her path brought her back to Norby’s Department Store, and back to DL.

“Her roots in this community are deep, and she has a great love for the community and for the region. She can envision what this community needs, and she’s not afraid to work hard to make it happen,” Amy continues. “While everyone thinks of Hans as the artist in the family, I would say that Mary Beth is just as much of an artist, but in a very different way. She’s an engineer, but not a totally straight-line engineer. She’s incredibly creative in thinking about what this community needs and how to do it.”

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In honor of Women's History Month, three of the lakes area's "leading ladies" — (from left) Sharon Josephson, Mary Beth Gilsdorf and Dixie Johnson — were asked to speak at the Becker County Museum in Detroit Lakes in March of 2018. (Detroit Lakes Tribune File Photo)

“Mary Beth’s love and pride for Detroit Lakes shows through in every project she is involved in,” says another longtime friend, Becky Mitchell, who’s the director of the Becker County Museum. “From serving on committees to volunteering at events to driving the train on major projects, she always brings a smile and endless energy to make our community a better place to be.”

“I couldn’t be more proud, honored and blessed to call her my mom,” says Kendra, Mary Beth’s oldest daughter. “It’s hard for me to sum up how awesome I think she is.”

Kendra’s sister, Megan adds: “She (Mary Beth) says that Kendra and I are her best work, which is true in the sense that she and my dad inspired us throughout our lives with all that they do for others and for this community, and we strive to do the same… I am truly blessed to have grown up with the parents I have.”

Mary Beth beams with pride as she talks about her daughters’ accomplishments: Kendra’s, in the world of community theater and fine arts, and Megan’s, in fashion and design.

In the years since graduating from Detroit Lakes High School, Kendra has conducted poetry workshops for the Historic Holmes Theatre, where she has also been involved in directing some summer musical theater camps for kids; she has also been active in Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre, including a recent stint as stage manager for the fall production of “Young Frankenstein.”

Megan, meanwhile, is in the midst of completing her senior Capstone fashion project at Arizona State University, where she will graduate in the spring.

Mastermind behind ‘150 Sails Up’

While Norby’s Department Store did its best to stay ahead of modern shopping trends, establishing a website shortly after Mary Beth started working there, the internet shopping revolution took a large toll on the downtown brick-and-mortar business, and Norby’s closed its doors in 2018 after more than 112 years.

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Hans and Mary Beth Gilsdorf pose for a photo surrounded by some of the finished "150 Sails Up" sailboat sculptures at Kent Freeman Hockey Arena in Detroit Lakes. (Forum News Service File Photo)

“It was pretty emotional,” said Mary Beth of the family’s decision to pull the plug on the store. “But it was good for us to be able to do it together.”

That same year, Megan graduated from high school and moved away to attend her mom’s alma mater, where she majored in fashion design. Though Kendra had chosen the much-closer Minnesota State University-Mankato as her college destination, and often came home for visits, Mary Beth was nonetheless dealing with being an “empty nester” for the first time, along with an unanticipated career change.

“I was taking 2019 to figure myself out, and to recharge, because I was drained,” she admits.

Then, in the fall of that year, as planning got underway for Detroit Lakes’ 2021 150th birthday celebrations, Hans and Mary Beth began to contemplate the possibility of another public art project like the highly successful “Sunny in DL” sculptures, which were unveiled in 2003.

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Mary Beth Gilsdorf (third from right) with a group of her friends and fellow Street Faire at the Lakes volunteers. Gilsdorf was the creative force behind the establishment of the Street Faire in 2001. (Detroit Lakes Tribune File Photo)

“It had always been in the back of our minds to do another one,” Mary Beth says. “The sunfish were such a hit.”

Inspiration struck during the sesquicentennial planning process, and the “150 Sails Up in DL” sailboat project was born.

Mary Beth wanted to be closely involved with the project, and with her future career plans still undecided, it was the perfect time to do so. She threw herself headlong into the planning for “150 Sails Up,” with the aim of producing 150 metal sailboat sculptures in time for an April 30, 2021 unveiling, at what was dubbed the “Sailboat Regatta Party.”

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic created some unexpected challenges for the ‘Sails Up’ planning team, sponsors and artists; at the same time, it provided some unprecedented opportunities.

“The pandemic hit everyone very hard and in every possible way — financially, emotionally, physically, socially — and all throughout the community, people were trying to support those around them in any way that they could,” says Megan Gilsdorf. “My mom chose to save the people hardly anyone else was thinking of during this dire time: She saved the artists.

“All across Minnesota and surrounding states, she gave artists the opportunity to be recognized for their talents, and a way to make money when money was tight. Not only that, this project brought splashes of color to the area and gave tourists yet another reason to visit Detroit Lakes… The celebration and unveiling of all 150 sailboats brought the community together — in a safe manner — after being isolated for so long.”

“Great success comes when you showcase other people’s talents and uplift the community as a whole,” she adds. “This is what I have learned from her.”

In fact, Mary Beth was the source of inspiration behind Megan’s theme for her Capstone fashion collection at ASU, which focuses on other students’ talents instead of just her own, uplifting the fashion community by focusing on diversity and inclusion on the runway and carrying the message that ‘we all belong.’

“Her work in life continuously shapes what I do in fashion,” Megan says of her mom. “From considering local communities, to the importance of small businesses, and finding new ways to collaborate with different people in all different industries.”

“She’s someone who says, ‘Yes!’ to the possibility of something wonderfully crazy, unique and exciting to make the Detroit Lakes community even more show-stopping,” says Kendra. “She isn’t the only one, as it does take a village of brilliant people to make it all happen, but she is definitely one of those...people who have been there since the beginning, saying ‘Yes!’”

“Mary Beth is a bit like the wizard in ‘Wizard of Oz,’” says Amy Stearns. “She’s behind the curtain, making things happen, working on community events, sharing ideas to Hans and her friends, and dreaming up ways to make this region better for everyone.”

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