In honor of his late wife, Keith Johanneson has pledged a $1 million gift to endow nursing scholarships at Bemidji State University. (Micah Friez / Bemidji State)
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By Micah Friez

Published 7:00 a.m. on May 19, 2024

In Bemidji State University’s nursing program, Maria (Renollet) Johanneson learned many important skills. And, in the enamored eyes of her husband, she possessed qualities that won him over faster than his heart could skip a beat.

“She was very gifted. She was kind and had a great bedside manner,” said Keith Johanneson, Maria’s widower. “And she was a beautiful woman.”

Yet after 14 years of marriage, Maria died in July 2023 at the age of 53. Her unexpected passing left a hole in Keith’s heart and left him to pick up the pieces. It’s something he’s still actively learning how to do.

“The one thing you’ll never take a class on is the word ‘grief,’” Keith said. “No one ever teaches you how to handle grief, and it’s awful. … If I see her picture or if I read her obituary, I start crying. Her memory is there all the time.

“But I keep her pictures all up at the house. She’s there every day and I talk to her. I’ve been going to a grief counselor, and that’s helping.”

Keith’s pain is raw and deep. He wears it on his sleeve. His voice quivers when he says the worst of it still feels like yesterday, and his eyes frequently well up with tears that threaten to spill over at any moment. But as he navigates the emotional unknown, he’s learned to not succumb to it.

Tears well in Keith Johanneson's eyes during the pinning ceremony for Bemidji State's Department of Nursing graduates on Thursday, May 2, 2024, in the Beaux Arts Ballroom. (Micah Friez / Bemidji State)

He wants Maria’s legacy to live on, and now, that means supporting nursing students just like her. Keith has pledged a $1 million gift in Maria’s honor to endow nursing scholarships at BSU.

“I really don’t want to take any credit for the gift. I want her name on everything,” Keith said. “It’s a lovely gift, and I’m happy to do it. … She’d be proud.”

Maria inspired Keith in many ways, and she often still does. As a nurse, she was dedicated to caring for others – something she’ll still be doing thanks to the Johanneson Family Endowment for Future Nurses.

“Keith’s vision is for Maria’s legacy to live on forever through this endowment, and I know first-hand that these scholarships will transform the lives of future nursing students,” said Bemidji State President John L. Hoffman. “But we also need to ensure that the legacies of Maria’s life and Keith’s love for Maria live on, as well.​”

Carving a career

Maria and Keith Johanneson in 2013, when Keith was a Bemidji State Outstanding Alumni honoree. (Contributed)

Maria Johanneson put herself through college and authored a nursing career that included stints at the Beltrami Nursing Home, the Gilfillan Center, North County Hospital and Clearwater Memorial Hospital.

Keith, meanwhile, has built a successful career in the grocery industry as the president and CEO of Johanneson Inc. for nearly 50 years. The company has grown across the Midwest, though Bemidji houses its headquarters as well as Marketplace Foods. Keith has also earned many prestigious awards over the years.

But before taking the reins of the business in the 1970s, Keith started out as a cashier at Super John’s Supermarket, his father’s store, across the street from Bemidji State’s campus. He admits he wasn’t the best student because he was working 40 hours a week, but he genuinely appreciates the quality education he received and “made a lot of lifetime friends.”

Unfortunately – and such is life – not all of his memories are rose-colored.

Keith was attending Bemidji State when then-president Harry Bangsberg died in a 1967 plane crash. The death of the young and charismatic family man, just 38 years old, remains arguably the most heartbreaking event in the history of the campus.

“That was tragic. It really upset the whole campus, and it was really hard to believe,” Keith said. “We had memorial services for him. It really put a dent in the culture of the university.”

Despite that, many students have since learned of Bangsberg and the influence he had on campus. He was full of ideas and zest, and he brought to the campus a freshness and vitality that were infectious in the college and community. Probably more than specific reforms and innovations, he added to the atmosphere a spirit of enthusiasm and a general feeling that the whole school was moving ahead in a useful, positive direction.

Likewise, Maria touched others in encouraging ways, so much so that her memory is appealing even to those who didn’t know her.

“I never had an opportunity to meet Maria,” Hoffman said, “but (my wife) Joy and I were able to attend her celebration of life ceremony, and that's where Maria came to life for us. We realized in that moment that she was a remarkable woman.”

An everlasting legacy

Keith returned to campus around Commencement time to participate in the Department of Nursing’s annual pinning ceremony. Emotions were back on his sleeve, but so too was the pride in honoring Maria in such a life-changing way.

“Many of our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and struggle with basic needs during school,” said Department of Nursing chair Catrina Welch. “They have family responsibilities as well as full-time jobs on top of the rigors of nursing school. A contribution from a local supporter like Keith can make a huge difference in how much time can now be spent on their studies rather than their needs for survival.”

The permanence of the gift is the most attractive part to Keith. Because it’s endowed, scholarships will come from the annual interest earned while the principal goes untouched. He hopes that, when it’s fully mature, the endowment can generate enough income to fund 50-60 scholarships each year.

“The exciting thing for me is the longevity of how long that gift will make a difference,” he said. “If it funds 50-60 scholarships a year, that’s not just for one year. That’s forever. It’s going to be a gift that keeps on giving well beyond my lifetime.”

And so, until the end of time, Maria will always be helping students who are just like her.

“She worked two jobs to put herself through nursing school,” Keith said. “She struggled. She really had a tough time. But she made it through and had a wonderful career.”

Maria and Keith Johanneson with Cash the dog in 2019. (Courtesy / Bemidji Pioneer)
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