People start a business to make money, pursue a passion or be their own boss. Gwen Engelbert did it to spend more time with her wife.
She and Katie Greene, her life partner for 31 years and wife for six after marriage equality became the law in Minnesota, opened Key North boutique in Minneapolis in 2006.
“Katie got laid off from her job in 2004 and Gwen was laid off in 2005, but they said the layoffs were one of the best things that ever happened to them because they got to realize the dream they had of working together,” said their son John Greene. “It was their dream almost from the first year after they met.”
Shopping sprees at Key North were a highlight for Olga Viso, a customer and former executive director of the Walker Art Center. “It was by far my best retail experience in Minnesota,” she said. “It was so personal, like visiting family members.”
Engelbert died Nov. 11 at age 80 of body myositis.
Gwen started her career with her graphic design business, Quanta & Associates. Later, her love of cars turned into a career in sales at Polar Chevrolet and Mazda in White Bear Lake and Morrie’s Mazda in Minnetonka. She was one of the few female salespeople on staff at the time, and she became the top Mazda salesperson in the Midwest.
“Like all great salespeople, she was fundamentally honest, caring and understanding of people’s needs, but it was challenging,” Greene said. “Being a lesbian woman who did things her own way found her swimming upstream in most of what she did.”
Her causes were legion and often outside the mainstream. She was strongly antiwar and staunchly protective of the environment. She marched against any military intervention, participating in regular protests of the war in Afghanistan on the Lake Street Bridge in Minneapolis. She and Katie fused their passion for fair labor issues and the environment into Key North, where they searched for goods that were sustainably sourced and made with fair labor practices. “Labor issues were close to Gwen’s heart,” said Victoria Safford, a minister at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi and officiant at Gwen and Katie’s wedding.
Engelbert was a study in contradictions. She excelled at hunting, fishing and carpentry and was also fashionable, elegant and exceedingly modest. At 5 feet 5, she felled 40 diseased trees on their heavily wooded Mahtomedi property herself, refusing help from a neighbor. She and her dad built a garage by themselves.
“She had total reverence for the beauty of the smallest things. She could identify so many plants and herbs. She was like an encyclopedia for the edible landscape. We’d walk through the forest behind our house and be in awe of everything unfolding around us,” said her son.
Her kitchen skills were legendary. “All the advice about nutrition today is an affirmation of what she did all along,” her son said. She used to joke that her first boyfriend was Anthony Bourdain. Her second faux beau was Carl Sagan.
John, the couple’s only child, was conceived through alternative insemination. “We were extremely intentional about what we did,” Katie Greene said. “We loved our road trips and knew we wouldn’t love them with more than one child in the car.”
The pair saw their share of discrimination as an openly lesbian couple who had a child through assisted reproduction before many couples were doing so. They were open with their son but counseled him on how to respond to others. “Gwen made it clear that everyone should be respected. It’s not an option to fight discrimination with discrimination.”
Engelbert is survived by her wife, son, daughter-in-law Anna and just-born granddaughter Gwen.