Kindness Legacy

by Delma J. Francis

Profile: Mary Bussman conducts the Twin Cities Women's Choir

Mary Bussman's passions are music and justice, one having to do with her driving force; the other with who she is. She indulges the first as director of the 140-member Twin Cities Women's Choir, the other by being an openly gay woman.

Out of the closet

Bussman, 44, is a graduate of the College of St. Benedict, where she majored in music education with a minor in theology, and along the way, met the love of her life, Tracy E. Tracy. Yep. That's right. No typo here. First and last name's the same. Tracy's major was in pastoral ministry with an emphasis on music. The couple began their careers, Bussman in teaching music in Upsala, Minn., and Tracy as music minister for a church in Waite Park. The two had a union ceremony in 1991. They were married in 2004 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

But what should have been a joyous time in the couple's life together was clouded. "The church found out and fired Tracy," Bussman said. That was when Bussman decided not to hide her true self ever again. "I haven't been closeted since then," she said, a determined glint in her eye. About that time, Bussman and Tracy formed a folk duo called Kindred Spirits, composing much of their own material. "She wrote the love songs; I wrote the angry righteous songs," Bussman said, with a grin.

Leaving Upsala after seven years, Bussman and Tracy moved to the Twin Cities where Bussman began teaching in the Minneapolis Public Schools. (In addition to her undergraduate studies, she has a master's degree in music education from the University of St. Thomas and K-12 administrative licensure from the University of Minnesota.) "When I came to the Cities, I purposefully went to Minneapolis because they have a nondiscrimination policy that spells out sexual orientation. They were inclusive, and it was nice not to have to fight that battle again," Bussman said.

Whistle while you work

Music has been a part of Bussman's life since she can remember. The next-to-youngest of 15 children, including a foster sister, she grew up on a farm southeast of Stewartville, Minn., where there were plenty of chores to be done.

"I sang all the time while I did my chores," Bussman said. "One day I was on the riding lawnmower singing my head off, making up songs, not realizing Dad could hear me," she remembered. "He said, 'So, I heard you singing today.'" It was acknowledgment that "he enjoyed it and was happy that I had enjoyed it." Her parents were musical, as well. "My mom, Anna is a hummer and a whistler; my dad Lawrence is 88 now and he can still carry a beautiful tune." The whole family would join in on Christmas Eve, she said. "We'd gather around our big table and Loraine (the youngest sibling) and I would play our guitars and lead the others in carols."

So, it's no wonder Bussman, of Robbinsdale, became a music teacher. "I loved bringing the beauty of music into my students' lives and their parents' lives, but I know there was a day when I walked into my music classroom and the walls were too small." Her answer was to go into education administration. Her need to continue teaching music was met with membership on a district-wide committee, Arts for Academic Achievement. "We taught classroom teachers how to integrate the arts" into their curricula, she said. Today, Bussman is principal of the 443-student Valley View Elementary School in Columbia Heights and will begin a new job Jan. 26 as principal of Central Middle School, also in Columbia Heights.

Those who inspire

"Sometimes in administration you get bogged down in 'administrivia' she said wryly, but she has Wednesday nights to look forward to. From 7-9 p.m., she conducts the Twin Cities Women's Choir. "That's the 'me' time for those women, and the choir is all about nurturing the creativity in me," she said.

Surprisingly, the people who most inspire her are not musical artists or composers. "Barack Obama inspires me. Maya Angelou inspires me. My mother inspires me," she says. "Each one of those people is really authentic. They live their own voice and ask themselves 'how can I give back, living goodness in everything I do to make the world a better place?'"

Bussman speaks lovingly of her mother, who at 82 still works three days a week as a lunch lady. "This is a woman who never had a job outside the home until she was 60. My mother was raised Catholic on a farm and has an eighth-grade education," but is wise in all the most important ways. "She encouraged us to be who we are, just be," she said.

Bussman recounted her parents' renewal of marriage vows on their 40th wedding anniversary in 1985. As bride and groom walked down the aisle of a Catholic church in Rochester, each of their children followed, those married accompanied by their spouses. As the oldest, Bussman's brother Henry, a gay man, was first in line behind his parents. "There he was walking hand-in-hand with his partner Bill," she recalled. Her parents taught their children "to honor the who, not the what" and to practice that philosophy in their daily lives, regardless of what others may think, she said. This means to honor the individual person, not the balance sheet, to treat every human being honorably. "It's inclusiveness," said Bussman, when reflecting on this lesson learned from her parents.

Legacy of kindness

Bussman calls herself "such a people person. I really enjoy interacting with people." But she has her introspective moments and at those times enjoys nature. She especially remembered a time during her junior year in college, spent in Salzburg, Austria (the setting for the musical, "The Sound of Music"). "I remember the beauty of it and a bluff overlooking the city. I'd just sit up there and think," she said.

Reflecting on what she hopes will be her legacy, Bussman said, "I hope to stress the importance of kindness, to be kind to people no matter what their income level, race or gender. And to encourage people to look for and create beauty in their lives."