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Bernadette Christiansen, leader at the Guthrie Theater and McKnight Foundation, dies at 63

6December 2021

Mary Nord couldn’t help but smile thinking of the obituary that her sister, Bernadette Christiansen, wrote of herself shortly before her death.

“Large and in charge until the very end,” Nord said. “That’s who she was.”

Christiansen began her obituary by writing: “One of the advantages of finding out at 60 that you have Stage IV, Grade 3, Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Cancer is that you get a chance to experience the reality that ‘we are all terminal’ up close and personal.”

Christiansen, of Minneapolis, died Nov. 8 from complications of that cancer. She was 63.

She wrote that her headstone would have the date of her birth, a dash, then the date of her death. Her entire life was lived within that dash.

“While far from perfect, I have tried to live the dash with candor,kindnessand humor,” she wrote.

Her family, friends and colleagues remembered her as accomplishing exactly that.

Christiansen was born the youngest of five in Shakopee. Her family would move to Minneapolis, and she lived most of her life in the area.

She graduated from the College of St. Benedict in 1980 and married Paul Christiansen a few years later. They had two kids, and filled their home “with five dogs, many goldfish, a guineapigand a CRAZY gerbil that literally NEVER slept,” Christiansen wrote.

She was always crafting something, or working on a project.

She was an excellent knitter, and she gave Nord a completed quilt just weeks before her death. This summer, she was essentially the general contractor remodeling her son’s condo, Nord said.

“That’s not really what terminally ill people do,” she said. “But she was remarkable.”

After graduating from St. Ben’s, Christiansen went on to work her way into a senior role at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Shortly after helping get the theater established at its new building on the riverfront, she jumped at a chance to work at the McKnight Foundation.

Peg Birk, the foundation’s interim president at the time, asked Christiansen to oversee their human resource department, but only after she called Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director, to tell him she was stealing Christiansen away.

“He said in that dramatic Irish accent: ‘I will fight you to the death for Bernadette,’ ” Birk said. “We were all just blown away by her presence and her personality.”

Christiansen remained at the McKnight Foundation for about a decade, stepping down as a vice president only after her diagnosis.

“She was hilarious, hilarious,” Birk said. “It’s hard to describe how well she listened and understood people. She was such a gifted, strategic thinker and courageous.”

She shared her diagnosis in a video sent to staff and friends that ended with James Taylor’s song with the refrain, “Shower the people you love with love.”

“That’s really how she lived,” Birk said. “She had a lot of people who loved her, and that’s a measure of how much she loved and gave.”

Christiansen is survived by her husband, Paul; son, Phil of Minneapolis; daughter, Grace of Ann Arbor, Mich.; and a grandson. A celebration of her life will be held at the Capri Theater in Minneapolis sometime in the coming months.

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