Marion Etzwiler launched her career as an aviation engineer. Then she changed course and became another trailblazer, this time in Minnesota’s philanthropic community.
Etzwiler was president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation from 1984 to 1994, quadrupling the foundation’s assets and expanding its community grantmaking and programing. She also served on numerous nonprofit, foundation and educational boards including Planned Parenthood, the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program and the Dean’s Advisory Council at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Etzwiler died Sunday at her Minneapolis home, four weeks after a brain tumor was diagnosed. She was 88.
Her children and associates said that Etzwiler never hesitated to embrace controversial causes if she believed they furthered social justice. Examples include her leadership in the 1970s of a nonprofit that helped women enter the work world, her seat on the board of the National AIDS Fund in the 1990s, and funding one of the first drop-in centers for LGBT youths in the region.
“She was fearless in what she would publicly support and very clear in her own true north and her own moral compass, and why these issues of social justice were important,” said Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minneapolis. “She inspired other people to join her.”
Etzwiler was born in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University in 1950 with a major in physics and minor in mathematics. Her mother was a musician and her father, who sparked her love of science, was an engineer. “She was the only female student who graduated that year in the physics department,” said her daughter, Nancy, of Stillwater.
She married her college sweetheart, Donnell Etzwiler, and went to work as a project engineer for aviation and rubber companies. In the late 1950s, she left her career to start a family and care for her four children, but returned to the workforce in the 1970s. She helped establish and later lead CHART, now called WomenVenture, which assists women entering and re-entering the workforce.
“This was a place about women ... understanding that the years they put in raising children, volunteering and running the household, were real and important skills and were transferable to the marketplace,” said her son, David, of Edina.
In 1984, Etzwiler took over as head of the Minneapolis Foundation, which grew its assets from $45 million to nearly $200 million under her leadership. She helped nurture the fledging Minnesota Women’s Foundation and the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, according to current Minneapolis Foundation CEO and president R.T. Rybak.
“She was also resolute about making this community better, and ... very comfortable making other community leaders uncomfortable in the name of improving the lives of everyone in Minneapolis,” wrote Rybak, a former Minneapolis mayor, this week on the foundation’s website.
The Emma B. Howe Memorial Foundation was created during Etzwiler’s tenure and has since given $50 million to community causes. “She knew how to enable people to unleash all their skills,” Nancy Etzwiler said.
Etzwiler was preceded in death by her husband, John Shepherd, and her former husband, Donnell. Besides David and Nancy, she is survived by daughters Lisa, of Chesterfield, Mo., and Dee, of Eugene, Ore.; stepchildren, Roger Shepherd, of Rochester, and Gillian Mestre, of New York City; 16 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Marquette Av. S., Minneapolis, with a reception following at the Minneapolis Club, 729 2nd Av. S. Memorials are preferred to the church, Planned Parenthood and the Women’s Foundation.