Mary Jo Wilkinson

HARVEY MI – Mary Jo Wilkinson, 70, of Harvey, died Friday evening, January 24, 2014, at her home after an extended illness, with her family by her side and under the care of Lake Superior Hospice.

Mary Jo was born in Escanaba on February 24, 1943 to the late Thomas I. and Katherine (Niemi) Wilkinson and moved to Marquette with her family and boxer dog when she was in the eighth grade. She graduated from Graveraet High School in 1961 and had many happy memories from that time. She was part of an unusually close class and maintained solid friendships with her former classmates throughout the years.

After graduation, she attended the University of Michigan where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing. It was culture shock going from Marquette to Ann Arbor in the early 1960’s. There were protests and diversity and beliefs that challenged her. She loved all the sporting events there, especially Michigan football and basketball.

From the University of Michigan, Mary Jo went to work in the psych nursing unit of Cleveland’s University Hospital. Again, she was challenged by a cultural change and was there during the Hough race riots and remembered Martin Luther King’s assassination. She developed close friendships with psych unit staff and felt she found her calling in working with the severely mentally ill. This became a common thread throughout her professional career.

Eventually Mary Jo returned to the Midwest and became involved with an educational enrichment program for 500 Indian children on the Oneida Indian Reservation in Wisconsin. It was sponsored by the Green Bay Catholic Diocese. There she worked with several nuns from different communities.

During these days, she volunteered with the Indian children and in the evenings had the best of times with the rest of the volunteer staff.

It was in Oneida when Mary Jo met Paula. They volunteered for six summers there. Mary Joe drove a 66 passenger school bus over 100 miles a day, picking up kids from toddlers to high school age. She loved the work and the people she worked with. There were a lot of nuns and priests from different communities at Oneida. It was a fun-loving group. They celebrated every holiday during the course of the summer, i.e. June 25 was Christmas, and July 17 was St. Patrick’s Day. They also got together at different times in the winter and have remained very close.

During those six years, Mary Jo moved to Madison, Wisconsin and worked in psych at the University Hospital there. She recognized the great need for prevention in the area of mental health especially with younger children. While there, she earned a Master’s degree in Counseling and Guidance. She worked with development programs at several elementary schools in hopes of helping children cope and learn life skills.

After a summer of working with Indian children on the Menominee Reservation, Mary Jo decided to make a change and, with Paula, returned to Marquette. She was hired at Northern Michigan University to teach psych mental health nursing. During her time at NMU, Mary Jo went to the University of Minnesota and received a Master’s degree in Nursing. She returned to NMU and taught in the Nursing School until she made a lateral move to the NMU Counseling Center. For the next several years until she retired, she counseled students individually and in groups.

In her “spare” time, Mary Jo enjoyed watching sports, reading and traveling. She was an avid football fan and rooted for the Packers and University of Michigan teams. She and Paula had attended many Michigan games in Ann Arbor. In the summer season, she followed the Detroit Tigers. Mary Jo and Paula have also taken many interesting trips, many of which were cruises. They went on an outstanding cruise through the Mediterranean and followed it with a week in Barcelona where they saw many architectural structures designed by Gaudi. They went on an Inland Passage cruise in Alaska; Mary Jo said it was so beautiful; it was like seeing a succession of picture postcards one right after another. They went on day tours from the ship and said the whale watching was the highlight of the trip. They went to Hawaii and London where they saw Phantom of the Opera, Carmen and the Buddy Holly Story.

When asked to describe “sisu” and how the concept is part of their life, Mary Jo explained, “Sisu is well ingrained through the Finnish women in our family, my grandmother and my mother, who died of cancer at 62. I have a bit of it myself by not getting help when I should and waiting until some things progress too much. It is real stubbornness, not giving up, plowing through, the ‘I can make it no matter what it is.’ And you do! It’s like a cat with nine lives. Mother had sisu. Is sisu more of a female trait? I think so. Of the people I know, the Finnish women, yes. Mother seemed to be the strength of the family. It’s not always like that, but usually is.”

Mary Jo is survived by her partner of 40 years, Paula Kiesling; her brothers, Tom (Mary Anne) Wilkinson and their two daughters, Patti DeBaun and Laurie Lewis-Cruley, all residing in Florida, Bob (Julie) Wilkinson, son, Jacob and his daughter, Liliana, and also their daughter, Katherine, all of Marquette.

Friends may call at the Canale-Tonella Funeral Home on Saturday, February 8th from 10 a.m. until 12 noon where a celebration of life service will be held at noon. A reception will take place in the funeral home immediately following the service.

Jo’s family would like to give a special thank you to Lake Superior Hospice for their excellent care and support.

Memorials are preferred to the Lake Superior Hospice Association or to UPAWS.

Mary Jo’s obituary can also be viewed at where relatives and friends may leave a note of remembrance.