Friends and family remember Ann Marie Nelson Kaari as a calm and steady voice on the Minneapolis school board, a needed influence during a controversial time for the district.
Although Kaari served on the board for 12 years, including several as chairwoman, she was worried that she would not be qualified to serve. Her husband, Warren, said she doubted her skills even though her experience as a PTA member, school volunteer and parent gave her credibility and respect.
Kaari, 75, died on Feb. 9 after two years of failing health and complications from heart and pulmonary issues.
The lifelong north Minneapolis resident first ran for office in 1987, convinced her area was underrepresented on the school board. She eventually emerged from a pool of 22 applicants to win the DFL endorsement and ultimately the election. She was re-elected twice.
Her husband said she was a single-minded advocate for all the kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools.
“She just wanted the best for kids,” he said. “She stuck her nose in there and fought for the best.”
The couple met as 10-year-olds at Jenny Lind Elementary School and also attended Patrick Henry High School together. They started dating as seniors and married in 1965, after Warren Kaari came back from college.
“I’ve always had this little flame in my heart for her,” he said.
The couple lived for a short time in Nebraska and Iowa and then returned to north Minneapolis in 1967 when Warren Kaari became a teacher and eventually a Minnesota State High School Hall of Fame cross-country and track coach at Minneapolis South High School. Ann Kaari, he said, threw her energies into raising their two sons and being active in the PTA and other neighborhood causes.
Her transition to the Minneapolis school board was certainly not easy. In the 1990s, the district was in a financial crisis, and the board was under scrutiny. When she was chair, the board made the unprecedented and controversial decision to hire Peter Hutchinson and consulting firm Public Strategies Group to run the superintendent’s office.
Hutchinson said Kaari was the rare example of someone who not only stepped up to public service but also showed authentic leadership.
“She was the perfect person at the time,” Hutchinson said. “She was calm and steady and determined to do what was right for students of Minneapolis.”
Ann Berget, a fellow board member, said Kaari set “a really, really high standard.”
“We were not a hands-off board,” she said, and members closely reviewed PSG’s progress.
Pam Olson, former activities director for Minneapolis schools, said Kaari was known for taking the time to attend activities throughout the district and that she had an uncommon ability to connect with kids.
Kaari always volunteered for the district’s annual spelling bee and the citywide History Day competition. “You could always count on Ann to help out and do the job,” Olson said.
When Olson posted a note on her Facebook page that Kaari had died, she was inundated with comments from former students who recalled how much she had affected their lives.
After Kaari retired from the school board, she continued to volunteer in the schools, helping in 1999 to form the Patrick Henry High School Foundation, and tutored students until her health would not allow it.
Besides her husband, she is survived by her sons, Stephen and Timothy, and grandson Owen. Services have been held.