Generous couple's bequests assist local arts, cultural organizations

Bella and John Sanders have left a lasting legacy in Park Rapids. Fourteen cultural and arts organizations are recipients of funds from their estate, which was recently concluded. The disbursements vary, but, in total, the Sanders granted $377,65...

Bella and John Sanders (Submitted photo)
Bella and John Sanders (Submitted photo)

Bella and John Sanders have left a lasting legacy in Park Rapids.

Fourteen cultural and arts organizations are recipients of funds from their estate, which was recently concluded. The disbursements vary, but, in total, the Sanders granted $377,658.

Isabella "Bella" Sanders, at 85, died in Oct. 2015. After a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, John passed away in Aug. 2009 at the age of 80.

Bella was an elementary school librarian before she retired. She spent many hours volunteering at the Park Rapids Area Library and was an active member of Friends of the Library.

Both the library foundation and Friends are beneficiaries of the Sanders' estate.


"Bella was a tireless volunteer," recalls librarian assistant Rhoda Jackson. "Once I joined the staff, my appreciation deepened for her many hours spent alphabetizing the shelves - the large print and mystery sections being her favorites - and weeding out those books that didn't get checked out enough to make room for new releases. Friends of the Library meetings traditionally ended with her 'words of wisdom' and she was a champion salesperson of the annual quilt raffle tickets."

Jackson well remembers the Sanders' hospitality and generosity.

"Ardent supporters of the arts, they treated me on occasion to a night of theatre and applauded my own theatrical pursuits. I am forever grateful for Bella's instruction on the correct pronunciation of Amherst. Hint: The 'h' is silent," she said.

Northern Light Opera Company (NLOC) and Long Lake Theater were among the Sanders' recipients.

"Long Lake Theater has been grateful to have John and Bella as patrons of our theater as long as we did," said owner Bruce Bolton. "Bella continued to attend shows regularly, even after John got sick. As a couple, they had a pretty outstanding sense of adventure and a biography that was out of the ordinary. They recognized the value that arts can give to a community. They set an example of selflessness for everyone."

The Sanders were early supporters of NLOC. In 2002, Bella suggested to founder Paul Dove that the Park Rapids opera company perform "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

"What's fun is she was not just a supporter of one group, she built up everybody," Dove said.

Often benefactors select one organization. "She was eclectic," he said. "I don't think they had a lot of extra funds available to them. I think when they contributed, it meant something."


Blank Canvas Gallery will direct the funds it received into arts-related programming, art shows and art galleries through the Park Rapids Lakes Area Arts Council, added Dove.

Over the course of his career, John taught music in Iowa, Morocco, Germany, Switzerland Zimbabwe and Minnesota. He was active at Trinity Episcopal Church in Park Rapids as an organist.

The Heartland Concert Association and Park Rapids Classic Chorale are grateful to the Sanders.

"The generosity to the Heartland Concert Association by the Sander's estate gift will help us to continue to bring world-class entertainment to the general public and also provide music outreach programs for the students of the Park Rapids Area School," said Bobbi Zigmant, president of the association.

Dave Keller, president of Classic Chorale, deemed Bella "a generous, community-minded lady."

"The impact of her gift will be felt for years by the Park Rapids Classic Chorale as it helps us to hire support musicians for concerts, extend our music library and hire the best possible directors and accompanists available," Keller said. "Imagine the impact upon our community if we all would be so thoughtful in planning our estates!"

Barbara Curtis is a longtime friend of the Sanders. Since they were children, both her and John's family vacationed in Park Rapids. Their cabins were built side by side on Long Lake in the 1920s.

In 1970, John and Bella tore down the old family cabin and built an A-frame home, where they spent every summer until 1985. They bought another property on Long Lake and constructed an octagonal retirement home, permanently moving there in 1987.


"They were very generous with their time, their talent and their money. They had the enthusiasm, all this energy, and they always wanted to promote art and music," Curtis said. "They didn't just buy a ticket. They always gave a donation."

Living at Home of the Park Rapids Area received "a very generous bequest," said Executive Director Connie Carmichael.

"We are so grateful that even after you have gone to heaven, your generosity is alive and well. Thank you, B, I know you are watching over us," she said.

Bella was a Living at Home volunteer and board member.

"They were a special couple," said Mary Aho, treasurer at the Headwaters Animal Shelter, which also benefited from the estate.

As John's illness progressed, he continued to visit the animal shelter to sit with the cats.

"He was losing his memories, but when he got in there his face lit up," Aho recalled.

Funds will go toward the shelter's spay and neutering program.

Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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