“I have experienced many different types of work,” she tells me over a cup of coffee at The Front Porch — the very same place where I first met Betty over two years ago. 

Indeed, Betty’s professional experience runs the gamut. She taught first grade in a public school. She sold real estate in Chicago and then Minneapolis. She did independent contractor work for 3M and other companies. She started a business with a partner selling computers and providing marketing services, then went solo publishing marketing materials for realtors, which allowed her to move to Ely. Betty was working remotely long before this era of remote work. 

Along the way she always maintained space for volunteerism, work she felt connected her to the real world. Betty volunteered for the Ely Food Shelf, co-hosted a book club with children via Ely Community Resource, made ceramic ornaments with kindergartners and taught Majolica ceramics decoration to high schoolers, and served as a founding member of the EMPOWER board. And these are just some of her Ely commitments! 

“What’s that saying?” Betty wonders aloud. “If you get a kid to volunteer, you’ve got a volunteer for life.” This value came from her mother, who was a leader in their church community. Betty began volunteering as a candy striper and working on other church projects as a child. 

Although Betty’s conversational skills and abundant stories would compel me to a coffee date any old time, we are here to reflect upon her career in honor of her recent retirement from the Ely Folk School, where she worked for nearly five years. Nowhere are her skills as a generalist more evident than in her legacy at the Ely Folk School. 

In her tenure Betty recruited and trained volunteers, hosted events, coordinated nearly 1000 classes, and served as her own technology services department — a list which pales in comparison to the magnitude of the tasks completed and the tender loving care offered to the persistence of the institution. Persist, it did! The Ely Folk School weathered the challenges of pandemic-related closures with Betty at the helm. We even served a record number of students in 2020. 

Betty was drawn to work for the Ely Folk School because she saw it as a way to make a difference. The Ely Folk School presented an opportunity for apolitical activism. “Though,” she is quick to add, “activist is not a dirty word.” Betty has always been willing to speak up for issues and causes that are important to her. 

Mission alignment was not the only draw. Betty’s do-it-yourself mentality lends itself to projects around her house as well as arts and crafts. She has engaged in a wide variety of artistic pursuits including knitting, crocheting, weaving, sewing, calligraphy, painting, fabric collages, ceramics, decorative metal working, stained glass, beading, and puppet-making. Betty is an artist at heart.

As such, we’ll surely continue to see Betty at the Ely Folk School. Through her work as Program Coordinator, with the help of grants from the IRRR and the MN State Arts Board and several volunteers, Betty was able to make her dream of an Ely Folk School ceramics studio a reality. She will continue to teach ceramics classes, along with stained glass and others. Though her day-to-day relationship with the folk school has changed in retirement, her commitment to the mission remains the same:

“My hope for the Ely Folk School is that it will thrive by providing diverse opportunities for lifelong learning, bringing people together to explore their ‘can-do’ creativity and the treasures of new friendships. I hope that people will value the joys of volunteerism and being instrumental in providing the support and leadership that sustain an organization they love.” 

What’s coming next? Betty is planning on diving into her own artwork more deeply, spending time with friends, organizing a long-neglected house, and just taking some time to breathe. She also plans to re-energize her part-time acupressure practice and has already started a year-long class in Compassionate Communication. 

Please join the Ely Folk School board for a Potluck Celebration in honor of Betty Firth, scheduled for Sunday, August 22 from 4:00pm to 6:00pm. Wear your favorite hat!