At the family's request memorial contributions are to be made to those listed below. Please forward payment directly to the memorial of your choice.
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
329 South Park Street
Kalamazoo, MI 49007
Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra
714 S. Westnedge Ave.
Kalamazoo, MI 49001
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Life Story / Obituary
With a warm smile and a welcoming heart, Mary Jean Hagerman lived a life rich in family and friends. Naturally sweet and funny, Mary embraced every person as a friend and every day as a gift. Mary was outgoing and a natural star whose love for music and people inspired a life filled with song and deep connections. Whether facing life's challenges or celebrating its joys, Mary confidently lived each moment to the fullest and encouraged others to do so as well. A powerful inspiration and role model, Mary was cherished by all who were blessed to know her.
The early 1920s were marked by tremendous confidence, prosperity, and previously unknown comforts. The 19th amendment gave greater power to women’s voices as they gained the right to vote. Broadway was booming with hundreds of new shows premiering, many of them musicals. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, this vibrant decade grew even brighter for Guy Chalmer Albert and Adah Belle (Fox) McKinley as they welcomed their daughter Mary to their family on March 26, 1924.
Growing up in West Michigan during the 20s and 30s, Mary's early years formed a firm foundation upon which she built the rest of her life. On her grandmother’s side, the family was former Amish farmers, mostly from Wyatt, Bremen and Elkhart, Indiana. On her father’s side, the Albert family, also in Indiana, can trace its genealogy to 1800. One early relative enlisted for Civil War service twice – the first enlistment ended in his capture and release, after which he re-enlisted for another Indiana unit. Mary’s mother, Adah, born in 1899, attended German language schools in Indiana.
Like many in her generation, Mary learned firsthand the values of resiliency and resourcefulness, discipline and hard work, and the importance of the arts. Eventually, the family moved to Kalamazoo. Her father, a WWI veteran, worked as a painter, while her mother made a career as a Licensed Practical Nurse. As Mary wrote in a short autobiography, the marriage was not made in heaven. Guy and Adah were divorced by the 1930’s and Guy moved to Indiana. To support herself and her only child, Adah ran a boarding house for men on Lake Street in Kalamazoo. Mary assisted with the chores and shared a single room with Adah. Mary’s love for singing developed at a very early age. Her mother supported and encouraged her talents by affording her music lessons. She even accompanied Mary some on the piano, which Mary also learned to play by ear.
Mary's life revolved around her family and an early career in the performing arts. Prior to graduating from Kalamazoo Central High School in 1942, Mary sang in several student productions. By 1944, she was performing with the Grand Rapids Municipal Opera. Her performances included Robin Hood, Babes in Toyland, and Hit the Deck. After high school, she was invited to perform in a light opera company in Chicago. Though she loved being a part of the company, she missed her family and returned to Kalamazoo, where she continued singing in the comforts of home.
While attending a dance party, in 1940, at Long Lake, Mary met William Kenneth Knapp. The pair corresponded during the war while William served in the Marines and they married in 1945, a year after Mary's father died from a fall off a ladder while painting. Though they later divorced, Mary and William's marriage gifted Mary with three sons, David, Bob, and Tom. Her boys were the center of her world, and she devoted herself to providing them with a loving and supportive home. A typical mom of the time, Mary was the disciplinarian who taught her kids to practice their crafts and balance hard work with play. The boys learned to love winter sports – sledding and, especially, skiing. During the summers, Dave and Bob went to the YMCA’s Camp Aharah.
Mary loved to entertain. Holiday gatherings with lots of family, bridge parties, and theatre parties were some of her favorite times. She even enjoyed the tradition of exchanging family recipes despite not being a big cook. During the early 70s, Mary was introduced by mutual friends to Don Hagerman, a local dentist. The couple dated and married in 1972. Sadly, Don died in 1995.
While raising her three children, Mary continued performing by singing solos with several local churches and choirs. During the 50s, she worked as an office secretary for Dr. Malone. During the 60s, she joined the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra as executive secretary, which proved a perfect fit for her. One of the highlights of her work with the Junior Symphony was helping guide the company on a performance tour in Europe during the summer of 1969. For many years, Mary gave private voice lessons and was a vocal coach for several local schools. With signature discipline and passion, she helped many students develop their talents and pursue their dreams of performing in college and professional theater. The go-to vocal teacher in Kalamazoo, who loved show tunes, Mary was especially proud when several of her students went on to perform on Broadway.
After her children graduated high school, Mary resumed more advanced stage activities, performing with the Kalamazoo Civic Theater. She appeared in productions of Steppin' Out, Two by Two, The Sound of Music, and performed in her favorite role as Golda in Fiddler on the Roof. She also assisted with vocal coaching at the Civic, worked part-time at Miller Auditorium's ticket office, and even worked for a time as a travel agent. Rarely one to be idle, Mary enjoyed traveling, going out to eat or the movies, and socializing with friends. In her quiet time, she enjoyed needlepoint and reading. She was extremely independent and even though her boys lived in other towns, she chose to stay in Kalamazoo. In her final years, Mary enjoyed living and being a part of Hope Woods Senior Community. She continued to play lots of bridge, kept up with current events, and stayed connected with friends and family by phone and email.
While it is hard to imagine life in the absence of Mary's bright and beautiful presence, may we find comfort in our many treasured memories and the privilege of being a part of her living legacy. With each moment we welcome a stranger as a friend, gather with family, sing with our heart's delight, pursue our passions, and encourage others to pursue their dreams, we celebrate the many ways Mary gifted the world. In so doing, we keep her spirit alive and inspiring others as she so inspired each of us.
Mary Jean Hagerman, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, age 97, died peacefully on May 10, 2021, at Bronson Commons in Mattawan. Proudly carrying Mary's legacy forward are her three sons: David Knapp (Penelope Firth), Robert (Virginia) Knapp, and Thomas Knapp (Theresa Donovan); and three grandchildren: Collin Knapp, Marie Firth, and Robin Firth. Mary also has two step-grandchildren, Kandis Schmelz and Melissa McCarter; 11 great-grandchildren; and 10 great-great-grandchildren.
Cremation has taken place. An online memorial service will be planned at a later time. Please visit Mary's personal web page at www.BetzlerLifeStory.com, where you can read her life story, archive a favorite memory, or photo and sign her online guestbook. Memorial contributions may be made to the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre or the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra. Arrangements by Betzler Life Story Funeral Home, 6080 Stadium Drive, Kalamazoo (269) 375-2900.