Upbeat to the end: Duluth woman’s own words in her obituary reflect positive outlook, work for others
The obituary was unusual, and not just because it was partially written in the first person.
"My family promised me that I wouldn't have a boring obituary that reads like a resume, and I sure do hope they follow through on my wishes," Linnea Stephan wrote in the obituary that appeared in Sunday's News Tribune.
"Actually, I know they did because I have an amazing family."
A typical obituary might have said that Stephan, of Duluth, died on Jan. 3 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. She was 49.
This obituary did not mention the date of death, nor the cause, and it was relentlessly upbeat.
"In Linnea's memory — live life," her family wrote in their part of the obituary. "Give to others, especially those who are suffering. Admire wildflowers and sunsets. Hike a trail off the beaten path. Love where you live (especially if it is Duluth). And beyond all — love one another fully."
Friends and associates contacted this week said the positive obituary reflected the person.
"Linnea was one of the most remarkable people I knew," said Don Ness, the former Duluth mayor. "She had this joyous personality, boundless energy and a real love for people and relationships."
Ness first met Stephan about 15 years ago, he said, through the Bridge Syndicate, which was a young professionals organization. Trained as a financial adviser, she worked for US Bank and then for Waddell & Reed before signing on as a financial coordinator and then marketing coordinator for Lutheran Social Service in Duluth. But she spent most of her time in the statewide role as a major gift officer, said Robin Pestalozzi, whom Stephan hired as her assistant at LSS in 2014.
Stephan raised awareness of youth homelessness in Duluth, Pestalozzi said.
"She was really just a tireless advocate for youth and the programming that we provided," she said of Stephan.
As major gifts officer, Stephan launched the fundraising for the Center for Changing Lives, the 27,000-square-foot, $9.1 million facility for LSS youth programming that opened last June. In part, it houses previously homeless young people. When Stephan left LSS to return to work as a financial adviser in August 2015, Pestalozzi continued in that role.
"It was really helpful to have her as a mentor," Pestalozzi said of Stephan.
After Stephan left LSS, she joined the board of directors of the Ordean Foundation, which Ness serves as executive director.
"Linnea always cared about Ordean and its mission to help people struggling with poverty in our community," Ness said. "I think that's why she wanted to support the organization."
Stephan was diagnosed with brain cancer in March 2016, said her fiance, Pat Mullen. The tumor was removed, and she followed that with six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. But in June when she began what was to have been 12 months of chemo, she developed an allergic reaction and wasn't able to continue.
Last May, Mullen said, another tumor was surgically removed, and in June a scan revealed no new tumors. But by August, five tumors had developed on the left side of her brain.
"She even went through that gracefully," he said. "We didn't know if she'd make it until Halloween, but Halloween came and Thanksgiving came. And as we approached Christmas, she could tell it was time to go."
Pestalozzi said she went for a walk in the neighborhood with Stephan shortly after the first surgery.
"She was telling me about the diagnosis, and she said, 'It's just one day at a time from here,' " Pestalozzi recalled. " 'I'll just keep eating my favorite foods and going for walks and laughing and enjoying life as much as I can.' "
Mullen, the senior vice president for external affairs at Allete, knew Stephan for a little more than four years, he said.
"She's probably the most open, bubbly, smiley, welcoming person I've ever met," Mullen said. The couple were engaged in December 2016, he said.
Stephan's Twitter feed was continually upbeat, filled with "thank yous" and quips. "Has anyone ever gotten salmonella from eating raw cookie dough or are people just trying to stop me from living my life?" she wrote on Dec. 19, 2015.
Her last tweet, on Nov. 17, simply said, "Addicted to hiking."
As she was dying, Stephan was active in preparing for the future, Mullen said. She wrote her portion of her own obituary and passed it along to her sister-in-law. She chose three friends to mentor her 11-year-old daughter Megan. She gave her best friend a playlist of songs for her memorial service. She put Mullen in charge of making sure that event wasn't "overly religious."
"The most joy I have found in my life is being a mother," Stephan wrote in her obituary. "My happy place is in nature. I am a terrible singer and I am not afraid to admit it. I love to laugh. ...
"Rather than buy flowers for my celebration of life, would you please consider buying a meal for a homeless person? Better yet, a homeless family with kids. In addition, if you are struggling, I sure do hope someone shares with you today."
The memorial service for Linnea Stephan will be at 11 a.m. Jan. 20 at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, 1325 N. 45th Ave. E., followed by a celebration of life from 1-4 p.m. at Grandma's Sports Garden, 425 S. Lake Ave.
Charitable gifts may be made in Stephan's memory online at lssmn.org/give/Linnea or by check to Lutheran Social Service, attn: Robin Pestalozzi, 424 W. Superior St., Suite 204, Duluth MN 55802.