First, you experience great surprise, and then awe, as you see a kid springing into the air, turning, flipping, and landing on their feet. Next, an involuntary “Wow!” leaps from your own throat. Finally, you see how much fun these kids are having, and how happy they are to be doing gymnastics with their friends.
Mary Lee Jensen, known as just “Mary Lee” to those familiar with local gymnastics, has been touching the lives of area kids and parents for 60 years.
As an 11-year-old, Mary Lee started taking dance lessons from Duluth dance instructor Marcia Cuzzo. “We did tap, jazz, ballet, toe, acrobatics, and more,” Mary Lee recalled. She took a special class in teaching dance at age 13. Then, in 1959, “At 16, I taught for two years for Marcia at the Androy Hotel ballroom in Superior,” she said.
After graduating from high school in 1961, she opened her own business in Cloquet, “Mary Lee’s Dance Studio,” where she taught for 17 years. The studio was located in the upstairs hall of the Cloquet Labor Temple, and later in the Sons of Norway hall.
“Then two of my daughters got involved in gymnastics through Community Ed in Cloquet, under coach Mary Brokofski, and overnight we became ‘Mary Lee’s School of Gymnastics,’” she said.
“We moved to the Scanlon Community Center gym, which was perfect, just in time to start gymnastics, with all the room we needed, and that’s where we still remain,” Mary Lee said.
Mary Lee recalled those early days of teaching gymnastics, stating, “It was such an exciting sport, with no limits on what the kids could learn, and my girls already had so much knowledge of the sport.” Her two daughters, Paula and Jodi, have been coaching with Mary Lee for 36 years, now. Over the years, several of her former students, and even her grand-kids, have coached for Mary Lee, as well.
“We’re definitely all ‘kid people,’ and love working with kids. All my coaches have so much compassion for them, as well,” Mary Lee stated. She continued, “When I started out on my own, I had 30 students. We now have close to 200. The numbers really started to grow when we switched over to gymnastics.”
Tonia Myers-Jakubek brought her son, Louis, to the gymnastics school when he was three.
“She (Mary Lee) has taught him flexibility, grace, large motor coordination, and discipline – all in a fun, loving environment,” Meyers-Jakubek said. She added that, “She is kind and patient, but gets down to business, and Louis loves her program. Every week, he loves for me to come watch for a few minutes before class, so I can see his “new cool tricks” he’s learned.
At a recent class at the Scanlon Community Center, girls and boys ranging in age from seven to fourteen lined up to take turns. They were practicing various mid-air “tricks,” including aerial cartwheels and “brannies” (also described as ‘aerial round-offs’), landing on well-padded mats.
One child came up just short on the landing of his aerial, and gasped, “Oh! So close!” The smile on his face showed his sense of challenge and adventure in working to master this trick.
Mary Lee noted that some of the kids in this class have been with her since they were three years old.
“We have 11 classes each week. We start girls and boys as young as three. Our program consists of floor exercise, balance beam, trapezoid, springboard, tumbling, aerial work, and so on,” Mary Lee stated.
She continued, “We have never been any part of competition. When you go there (to competitions), the real good kids seem to get more attention than ones who are maybe not as good. My coaches and I make sure all our students are treated as equals. That’s why we have 11 classes, as there’s a different skill level in each class. So, they (the kids) feel comfortable, and have a great time.”
Classes meet on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings throughout the school year. “At the end of May we have a family night where anybody can come and watch the kids,” Mary Lee explained. “And, they all get a medal for participating. That’s where parents really see what their kids have learned in those nine months, and they are amazed. It’s amazing what kids can do when they like what they’re doing,” she said.
That kids are engaged and having a great time is very evident at Mary Lee’s School of Gymnastics. “Sometimes they just come running in, the little three and four-year-olds. They just are excited. When they leave, they go out smiling,” Mary Lee said. “This is a happy place, and it’s safe.”
Mary Lee seems to have a sense that it is her great privilege to work with kids: “There’s nothing greater than to see a three or four-year-old master a cartwheel or an older child do their first back-handspring front touch or aerial cartwheel. The look on their face is priceless. There’s nothing greater in this world. Nothing! When you’re around kids, life is good.”
Mary Lee remembered the kids coming into her program, growing, and going on to have their own successes. She said, “For many past years and still today, each time we go to the sports section in our local papers, we see pictures of our past and present students that are outstanding in high school sports, so rewarding to see.”
Over the decades, many of her students from years past have also returned, bringing their own children with them to be taught gymnastics by Mary Lee and her coaches. “I’m in my third generation of students. Once in a while I’ll run into the grandmas I had in the ‘60s,” Mary Lee said.
She acknowledged that, “Gymnastics teaches skills that can be carried throughout one’s life: confidence, self-esteem, strength, flexibility, coordination, and so much more.”
Parents appreciate both the gymnastics and social skills their kids learn under Mary Lee’s tutelage.
Roni Rodd, stated, “All three of our children participated between 1986 (and the) mid-1990s. They still talk about the fun times they had.” Rodd added that, “Mary Lee had a special way of teaching children of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities.” Rodd was impressed that Mary Lee “also taught important life skills of waiting your turn, encouraging others, and doing your best, while instilling good work ethic and boosting self-esteem in a fun way.”
As they have for the past 60 years, the kids come to “Mary Lee’s” and leave happy, having gained new skills, and often new friendships.
For Mary Lee, it has been a lifetime full of great memories and friendships, but it may be time to move on. She plans to sell her family business, Mary Lee’s School of Gymnastics, after this season, if she can find a buyer.
“After 60 enjoyable years, I’m thinking it’s time for me to retire. My coaches and I have so enjoyed each and every child we’ve touched.”
Photo at top: Mary Lee Jensen, center, is flanked by coaches and daughters Paula Oien (L), and Jodi Belich (R) at Mary Lee’s School of Gymnastics in the Scanlon Community Center. Her daughters have coached gymnastics with Mary Lee for 36 years. Photo – Timothy Soden-Groves