Born to Norwegian immigrants Olaf and Margit Helland on February 22, 1927, in Blue Earth, Minnesota, Ethel Marion Helland was destined to become a teacher and the voice of the oppressed. After starting school at a one-room country school, Marion brought English home to her parents and eventually her younger siblings Orville and Gladys. In seventh grade, Marion began attending school in Cylinder, Iowa, where she later graduated. Marion loved to read, which exposed her to oppressive topics spreading way beyond the borders of her small Iowa town. In her valedictorian speech in 1944, Marion used the analogy of a twisted twig to exemplify the infiltration of oppression within our nation stating, “The dream of mankind has ever been to build a better world. The goal of man is not freedom from toil and a life of rest and ease. Man seeks by the sweat of his brow and the skill of his mind to build for a greater future. As a twisted twig sometimes develops into the branch, spoiling the symmetry of the forest, so sometimes a twisted idea finds root in the mind of man and develops a personality which spoils the beauty of man’s dreams.”
After graduating from Waldorf College in 1946 with her associate of arts degree, Marion went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. Upon graduation, Marion taught her first class in Bode, Iowa. After two years in Bode, she taught in Davenport, Iowa, for three years. At that time she moved to Robbinsdale School District in Minnesota where she worked on a diversity curriculum and educated students for 39 years, retiring in 1992. Besides teaching full time, Marion worked selflessly, fighting for the oppressed. In 1965, Marion responded to a “Teachers WANTED to Teach FREEDOM” add in the American Federation of Teachers Newsletter and began her lifelong journey for working for social justice. During her summer break of 1965, Marion helped set up a Freedom School in Gadsden, Alabama, and helped with voter registration. On her first day in Alabama, Marion sneaked into a Klan meeting at the local elementary school, recalling being shocked by the fact that “they had records of Christian hymns playing as we marched in, and there were also young children in Klan outfits.” The following summer Marion traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, where she assisted with integration efforts. During that stay, the headquarters where she worked was bombed, and individuals attempted to burn a cross on the lawn where she was staying. Despite the eminent danger, she stayed and helped organize a library for minority students. Marion stated, “I was motivated by the rightness of the cause. I can't quit. Once I start something, I can't stand to leave it alone until I'm done.” As an activist, Marion sought ways to promote integration. As a teacher, Marion encouraged children to bring about change, for she had the opportunity to be a part of something greater than herself by teaching black children that they could be more than what society told them they could be. In order to provide accurate information for her students, Marion developed packets of information to share with her students since textbooks had incomplete information about the integration movement.
In 1968 Marion traveled with the Minnesota delegation to Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., for the Poor People’s Campaign. After the 1960s, Marion worked on issues in Minnesota with the American Indian Movement and Human Rights Commission. Marion organized Reducing and Eliminating Hate Behavior (REHaB) by dialoguing with students and adults convicted of or involved in hate incidents. She also worked with cases in schools and through the court system. Moreover, Marion provided training for the American Jewish Community as curriculum design adviser for Hands Across Campus. She was also an adjunct faculty member at Hamline University where she was an instructor in critical thinking and a member of Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity.
In January 2000, Marion received the Dream Keepers Elder Award from the Governor’s Commission on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance and the State Council on Black Minnesotans for her lifelong dedication to human rights. On September 2010, she received the Golden Valley Envision Award for her work on the Golden Valley Human Rights Commission where she served for more than 30 years. The chairman was quoted as saying, “Marion meets the standard, but raises the bar to unimaginable standards. She is a graceful leader who is tough enough to take on any task.” Marion continued to work on local issues in Minnesota with the American Indian Movement and through the state Human Rights Commission, including workshops, forums, and classes on race, ethnicity, poverty, and hate crimes. She served as secretary of the League of Minnesota Human Rights and was a member of the Robbinsdale Community Collaboration Committee for Desegregation and Integration. In 2015, Marion received the 2015 Waldorf College Alumni Distinguished Service Award from her alma mater. In order to make a change, Marion was also a firm believer that everyone should vote, voting for the first time during the Truman election and every 2 years to follow.
Besides Marion’s years of serving, in the 1980s, Marion enjoyed and excelled at bowling with a high score of 211, series high of 546, and many first place in the league awards. Marion enjoyed spending time with her husband of 46 years David Crawford, who left this earth in July. One of their favorite pass times was riding around in style in his Rolls Royce. Additionally, Marion and David loved watching her Minnesota sports--Vikings, Lynx, Twins, Timberwolves, Gophers, and Wild. Marion stated, “We were a team, and our differences complemented and completed our union.” Marion also enjoyed gathering photographs, working on her computer, reading, enjoying the beauty of nature at her home in Golden Valley, and writing letters and sending scrapbook photos to her friends and family.
Now Marion is at rest with her beloved husband David as well as her mother Margit and father Olaf. Marion is survived by David’s two daughters, Davorse (Jeff) Kimbrel and Virginia Webbs (Michael Woods) all of Grand Rapids, Michigan; and her brother Orville (Joan) Helland of Cylinder, Iowa, and their children Denise, Lori, and Erik; her sister Gladys (George) Doocy of Spirit Lake, Iowa, and their children Diana, Kathy, Debbie, Pam, and Janine.
In the words of Marion, “It has always been man’s greatest ambition to leave a better world behind when the final curtain is drawn.” As November 17 drew the final curtain on Marion’s life, Marion left behind a better world. Marion believed that people should give every human being the same rights that they declare for themselves. In Marion’s final words of her high school valedictorian speech, “With the faith that has always carried mankind onward, we go forth to do our part in writing the story of civilization.” Now it is our turn to carry on with Marion’s mission as we continue to hear Marion’s sweet voice say, “Jeg elsker deg.” (I love you.)
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