Coming Full Circle
Mary Kay “Kate” Williams ’60 first served as a camp counselor while she was a student at St. Kate’s, and it was this Catholic girls’ camp in Crosslake, Minnesota that sparked her interest in biology and inspired her to become a teacher. Now, after a decades-long career in education, Williams can be found each summer on that very same lake as the assistant director of Camp Knutson — a very different camp than the one she attended as a Katie.
Working at Camp Knutson allows Williams to integrate her passion for nature and education with the commitment to service instilled in her at St. Kate’s. The camp, according to its mission statement, “is dedicated to nurturing the well-being of persons with special needs in a setting which celebrates God’s love for community and creation.” Williams estimates that in summer 2016 it will welcome about 650 children with unique needs related to heart disease, skin disorders, autism, Down syndrome and HIV/AIDS, accompanied by more than 400 support staff.
“We’re into making a safe place for kids, providing them with an environment in which they can be loved and cared for, and experience things that they wouldn’t get a chance to do otherwise,” she explains.
Former Camp Knutson counselor Rebecca Bjorke ’14, MAOT’15, says the camp’s emphasis on providing a setting where all people are valued is a reflection of Williams’ own principles. “Serving others is always on the forefront of Kate’s mind,” she adds, noting that Williams is deeply motivated by Catholic Social Teaching.
“I was raised in parochial schools, and was taught by Dominicans in the first eight years of my grade school,” says Williams. “Then I was at the Academy of Holy Angels, which was owned and operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.” As a result, the call to serve our neighbor was integrated into her early learning. Williams attended St. Kates, just as her mother (a 1937 graduate) did. It was a natural fit, because the University’s mission aligned with her values.
For 20 years after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, Williams taught at Regina Catholic High School for girls in Minneapolis. Her work and many conversations with the Dominican nuns only further fueled her passion for social justice. She went on to teach science at Minneapolis Community College and, as a master gardener with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, create closed-circuit broadcasts about plants and the natural world for patients at the university’s Children’s Hospital.
Williams became involved with Camp Knutson by coincidence. She grew concerned after reading in a local newspaper that the camp’s owner, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS), wanted to sell it. Her chance to do something came one evening at the opera in St. Paul, when she overheard Mark Peterson, the chief executive officer of LSS, speaking with someone about the pending sale.
“I said to my husband, ‘Don’t talk to me; I’m eavesdropping,’” recalls Williams. She was retired at the time but spending her days as a beekeeper — an interest that developed at St. Kate’s, by the way, when she wrote her senior paper about social insects.
Williams worked her way into Peterson’s conversation and urged him to preserve the land and continue offering camping experiences because “the value of camping for individuals is profound,” she notes. Peterson connected Williams and her husband with a development director at LSS. Together, along with other worried neighbors, the group made a plan to raise funds for the camp. Williams co-chaired the advisory board and eventually became one of its leaders.
Williams finds Camp Knutson, 20 feet across the channel from where she was first inspired to teach and study biology, the perfect place to complete her enduring love of nature and serving others. “My life has come full circle, really,” she says.
Elizabeth Otto is an assistant professor of communication studies at St. Kate’s.
Photos courtesy of Camp Knutson.