Randall Donner
Randall Donner, Communications Senior Professional

Mosaic Remembers Mary Lou Ernst

In her adopted home town of Holdrege, Nebraska, Mary Lou Ernst knew someone everywhere she went. She also had an encouraging word for them and a caring ear when needed – and would leave you feeling better than you did before you saw her.

Mary Lou died in April after living 77 years overcoming obstacles through determination and an upbeat, cheery attitude.

She was born in Lexington, Nebraska in 1943 to D.D. “Dutch” and Corrinne “Rene” Ernst. Their devotion gave her a firm foundation that set her on a unique path to success.

Mary Lou lived her first 19 years in her family home. Her parents taught her to be as self-sufficient as possible and set high expectations for her, which she surpassed.

Her life became one of “firsts.” She was one of the first people with a disability to graduate from the local public high school. She was one of the first to move into community services and then into her own apartment later in her life. She was the first person supported by Mosaic to become a member of the board. The list went on.

Mary Lou came to Mosaic after high school, when her parents realized she needed something more than they could provide. After looking at options, they chose Bethphage in Axtell, Nebraska (now Mosaic). When they took Mary Lou there, her family was told to not contact her for six weeks so that she could adjust. When they did call mid-fifth week and asked if she was ready to come home for a weekend visit, they were surprised by her response. She told them that she was too busy to go home, but they could come over to Axtell and see her between 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon. The folks did as Mary Lou had asked. Obviously, she was “home” at Bethphage Mission.

At Bethphage, Mary Lou first helped with small children, taking them for walks and to the playground. She then moved to secretarial work, which her father said she described as her “dream job.”

When Bethphage expanded to community housing in nearby Holdrege, Mary Lou was one of the first to move. She moved into a group home and began working in retail at the Corner Nugget (a thrift shop). Her success fueled the desire for further independence.

“I decided after I lived in a group home and worked at the Corner Nugget, it was time for me to find my own place,” Mary Lou had related. “I went out looking for a place and found an apartment of my own.”

She didn’t ask her family for help in setting up the apartment. Mary Lou’s cousin said she invited her parents to see it only after everything was ready. They were both “surprised and happy,” no doubt proud of the young woman they had raised.

From there, she decided to try different jobs, including working several years in the school cafeteria. When budget cuts forced the school to cut her position, she found herself back at the Corner Nugget, where she worked as a cashier and clerk. She tried different apartments, too, over the years moving to four different places.

Her father once joked that when he wanted to visit Mary Lou, he needed to make an appointment because she was so busy. She loved attending local sporting events and had many friends in the community with whom she enjoyed meals out, community events and school events. She was an avid traveler, visiting her brothers Jim and Bob in Colorado at least twice per year. She also visited Hawaii, Germany, London and Paris, and she took cruises. 

In 2002, Mary Lou made another pioneering first when she began serving on the Bethphage Board of Directors. She continued that service after Bethphage and Martin Luther Homes united as Mosaic in 2003. As a board member, she officially visited several locations across the country to learn about Mosaic’s work, which she reported back to the Board.

Mosaic President and CEO Linda Timmons worked with Mary Lou on the board and had a long-standing relationship with her before that.

“It was truly a pleasure to have known Mary Lou for more than three decades,” Linda said. “When we look back on our lives, we want to be remembered for things like kindness, compassion, and friendship. Mary Lou had all of those things in abundance.”

Mary Lou’s parents, Dutch and Rene Ernst were appreciative for Mosaic helping their daughter.

Mary Lou herself once said, “Without Mosaic, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. With their encouragement and support, I have a lived a good and rewarding life.”

But the independence, determination and grit that helped Mary Lou succeed did not come from Mosaic. She had a great start with her family, and she set her own future.

​“Until the end of her life–I spoke with her only a week or two before she passed–she expressed her gratitude for her loving family, friends and the support Mosaic provided,” Timmons shared. “The truth is, though, it was her determination and perseverance that enabled her to live a full life.”

Mosaic was privileged to be a part of it.

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