Obituary: Merrilyn Belgum, social worker, comic

A master of the human condition from years of professional social work, Merrilyn Belgum switched careers at age 60 to tell jokes.

Often referred to as the “Queen Mother of Comedy,’’ the entertainer died May 9 at age 89, about a decade after her last stand-up gig.

“She had this depth of understanding about people that made her hilarious,’’ said the Rev. Dan Garnaas, a pastor at Grace University Lutheran Church in Minneapolis who thought of Belgum as a second mother. “She had such depth and love and care.’’

A devotee of thrift-store shopping who wore garish evening gowns and feather boas on stage, she often said that life without laughter was like a long journey without a resting place. Although she didn’t dwell on her status as a senior citizen for material, she occasionally joked about having hearing aids and being legally blind in one eye.

“I can’t see or hear, but thank God I can still drive!” she would crack.

Born in Duluth in 1924 and schooled in social work at the University of Minnesota and University of Denver, Belgum practiced in Alaska, Colorado, Iowa and Minnesota before she was hired at the U. There she ran a program in the School of Social Work that hosted practitioners from abroad.

In 1986, Belgum retired as an assistant professor and began her comedy career in the long-running Dudley Riggs Theater show, “What’s So Funny About Being Female?” For about the next 20 years, she performed around the country and appeared on national television, including a Showtime special hosted by Martin Mull called “Talent Takes a Holiday.’’

Erik Belgum, her son, said he wasn’t shocked by his mother’s career change because she loved to make people laugh and had a flair for public speaking. “She always valued being funny over anything else,’’ he said.

In 2008, Belgum was cast as herself in an artistic movie called “She Unfolds by Day,’’ written and directed by her son, Minneapolis filmmaker Rolf Belgum. He said the movie won critical acclaim and somewhat foreshadowed the last stretch of his mother’s life. The movie was about a son’s observance of his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s while dealing with his own medical issues.

Garnaas said Merrilyn “looked at life with a wonderful sense of joy and humor,’’ poking fun at human characteristics in family members, herself and others, but never with scorn. Her routines included exaggerated mom talk and wry family stories. And while her comedic persona was flamboyant, she was full of humility in real life, Garnaas said.

Belgum was preceded in death by her husband, Harold Belgum, and brother Donald Olson. She is survived by her four daughters Kari Hammen, Guri Belgum, Dagni Senzel and Siri Belgum; her sons Erik and Rolf; four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A memorable service was held at Grace University Lutheran Church.

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