Mother Superior

The terrible compassion of Mary Jo Copeland.

Before her death, friends of Holtby bristled when local media dragged out their yearly tributes to Copeland and her charity, usually during the holiday season. They never said anything to Holtby, though. In this part of Richfield people of Holtby's generation don't ask others to air their dirty laundry. That's why they pretended not to notice the bruises on Holtby's arms, the occasional black eye or scab. Everyone knew Woodrow was crazy; that he beat his wife until he died of Alzheimer's disease in 1986; that he probably beat his children as well. But Gertrude didn't want to talk about it. She preferred to keep a stiff upper lip, a trait her daughter neither possesses nor admires.

"My mother never did anything to stop him," Copeland says with rage in her eyes. "She just stayed there and took it. She never left. She never did anything. No one will ever know what happened in that house. No one will ever know." Though Copeland never quite gets specific, she always makes sure to let you know that beatings and verbal abuse were just a part of the horror.

Spencer and others maintain that it was Copeland, not her mother, who refused to return calls, stop by at Christmas, or send a birthday card. One longtime friend of Holtby's who did not want to be identified says Holtby would send herself balloons and flowers on Mother's Day so people wouldn't ask questions about her famous daughter. "I'm so upset with Mary Jo," the woman says. "She's just not what she appears to be."

Christopher Peters

Holtby's friend also maintains Copeland's complaints of maternal abandonment are pure fiction. She says when the Copeland children were young Dick routinely came by Gertrude's Dress Shop to pick free apparel off the racks. Holtby, the friend says, also helped pay her grandchildren's private-school tuition.

Chances are what really transpired between Copeland and her mother will always be grist for the storytellers, both at the Silver Spoon and at Sharing and Caring Hands. It's a fact, however, that Copeland did not attend her mother's funeral, an act of defiance that even upset the local Catholic hierarchy. "The archbishop came to me after the funeral and demanded to know why I wasn't at my own mother's funeral," Copeland says. "And I said, 'Look here, I could not go. I could not go. Do you understand? I have forgiven her, but I could not go.'"

It was Copeland's oldest daughter Therese who organized her grandmother's funeral and who composed an obituary in the Star Tribune. At the end of the short write-up, those in mourning were asked to send donations to Sharing and Caring Hands. Copeland brushes off the controversial request, saying it yielded "next to nothing." But Holtby's still-grieving friend believes it was salt in the wound. "What Mary Jo is doing downtown is a good thing, but in part, she's gotten financing over the years by making people feel sorry for her, by degrading her mother," she says. "And that request at the end of the obituary? Well I'm sure Gert did a somersault in the grave over that one."

"And I told her, 'Maria, we have to pray for the man who hurt you, because he is a sad, sick man.'"

John Holtby is 47 years old. As a child he suffered from mental retardation. At age 16, he was sent to a boys' home in Austin, Texas, because he was too much for his family to handle, too much to explain. When he went AWOL from there, Gertrude got on a plane and brought him home. Ever since then he's been drugged, shocked, and caged, coping with his schizophrenia in institutions and halfway houses. It's doubtful whether he'll make it on the outside. Past experience suggests he won't.

Although Gertrude didn't always know what to do with John, they shared a strong bond. "She wanted him to be free, that's why he loved her so much," a longtime acquaintance of John's says. "The only thing John wants is a certain amount of freedom. His greatest terror is being locked up."

Before Gertrude died, John never talked about his sister Mary Jo. But after Gertrude's stroke he heard Copeland being interviewed on the radio and flew into a rage. "He just kept saying, 'Why is Mary Jo hurting my mother,'" Gertrude's friend says. "He just couldn't understand it."

"After his mother died, John started using curse words for the first time in years," his acquaintance says. "He called Mary Jo a cunt and a bitch, just lost control because he associated being locked up with his sister. Mary Jo has a history of wanting to put John back in institutions the minute he got out. And, as of now, John's managed to work his way into a situation where he can go on a walk in his neighborhood or visit the corner store and buy a soda, which is much better than being locked up in a state hospital. He believes, given the chance, Mary Jo would take that away from him."

During the last years of Gertrude's life she shared legal custody of John with her nephew Jim Oelke and his wife Debbie. The three became close friends during that time, so when Gertrude was dying the Oelkes resolved to honor a last wish. They promised to ensure that neither Mary Jo nor any member of her immediate family would ever get legal custody of John.

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