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Robert Hugh (and Marnee) Monahan

Howard "Zhanie" Zahniser

My parents: Robert Hugh Monahan, Jr. and Marian Willey Monahan 

Written by: David F. Monahan (their son) My father, Robert

Hugh Monahan, Jr, was born in International Falls in 1914, the third child of Robert Hugh Monahan and Elizabeth Stevens Monahan, both pioneer medical doctors who established the first hospital in the area. He, too, became a doctor. While in medical school he met a nurse named Marian Louise Willey, and soon they decided on marriage. My father was excited to introduce his fiancé to his family, which logically included Ernest Oberholtzer (!) and they ventured to International Falls for a formal announcement. Mother once told me about her confusion over our father’s choice for his “Best Man,” as she thought that the man was a bit older than she expected. The best man in our parents wedding was Ernest Carl Oberholtzer. Ober was the age of our grandparents’ generation; however, our father was very close to him. We have come to the conclusion that our father didn’t have a very close relationship with his own father, and Ober was more of a father and friend than his own. It didn’t take any time for our mother to realize Ober’s charms. Robert and Marian were married on June 23, 1939 in Minneapolis. They spent their honeymoon on Ober’s Island in the peace and tranquility of the Japanese Cabin at the west end of The Mallard.

After WW II, we settled in St. Paul, Minnesota and spent our summers on Rainy Lake. On Memorial Day Weekends we would pack the family car with pets and move into our rustic cabin at Birch Point. Our family and various animals would stay until Labor Day, and our father would commute back and forth so he could keep his medical practice active. That first summer day on Rainy Lake would be consumed by preparation and getting launched. My early recollection was of a wooden boat with a whopping 9-HP Johnson motor that propelled us at a walking pace. By afternoon we would be east-bound in the channel between Deer Island and Jackfish Island. As we rounded the corner around The Crow, and The Mallard would come into view, it was magic. There would be Ober on the dock waving a greeting to us. It was absolutely amazing to a young boy that Ober knew that we were coming, because there was no telephone or electrical power. My brother and I would quickly be out of the boat and exploring every inch of the island. Of course, Ober would insist that we stay for dinner and spend the night. After dinner Ober would send us boys to the ice house where we would paw through wood shavings in search of a block of ice. Ober loved ice cream. We had to churn the cream by hand, and it was always a great show.

Sleeping on the island was an adventure. Many nights I fell asleep to the haunting rhythm of drums coming from the west end of the Hawk. Ober provided a camping site for the Indians from the Wild Potato Reservation on the Canadian side of the lake. This campsite was ideal to facilitate canoe travel from the reservation to Ranier, International Falls and Fort Frances; it was well used. After Ober became incapacitated, a caretaker was hired to oversee the islands. Part of this tragic turn of events was that, a short time later, I believe that the Indians were told they could no longer camp on that campsite. Things were already changing prior to Ober’s death.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, I overheard many long discussions between my father and other men about estate planning. Ober was a horribly impractical man, and he certainly dragged his feet dealing with the issue, but through our father’s encouragement the concept of the Oberholtzer Foundation was officially documented in his will. Ober chose the First National Bank in Minneapolis as executor of his estate. After Ober’s death in 1977, our father invited a group of Ober’s friends to re-activate the Oberholtzer Foundation. There were countless planning meetings at our cabin on Rainy Lake, and our mother took great delight in hosting the seemingly endless parade of interested parties.

Ober had no close family, and he had named thirteen heirs to his estate. This presented a huge problem for The First National Bank. Satisfying all these people with varying interests made the act of distribution of his assets a nightmare. The easy solution for the bank was to liquidate all the assets and distribute the funds to the thirteen named heirs, however, my father and others sincerely believed this was specifically contrary to Ober’s will. The bank had no concept of what Ober or his islands were all about. The individual assigned to the task of distributing the estate had never been in Koochiching County and certainly not out on a remote island. In fact, the bank was told that the islands were overgrown and the buildings were in a desperate state of decay, a condition that probably was grossly exaggerated. The bank was also told that there was a private party waiting to purchase everything in the current rundown condition. The bank summarily proceeded to consummate a sale.

In response, our father filed a lawsuit against the First National Bank to block the sale of the islands to a private party since several friends felt it was contrary to the specific wishes dictated in Ober’s will. The sale of the islands was successfully blocked. Our father wisely then invited the bank representative to serve on the board of this newly re-formed Oberholtzer Foundation. Through a complex combination of transactions, enough funds were raised to secure the islands for the immediate future. My parents worked countless hours and days with other friends of Oberholtzer to ensure that those ideas Ober had were fulfilled to the best of their abilities.

From a March 21, 1978 Letter from this group of friends: “We are named not as heirs to divide his estate in the conventional manner, but as stewards to continue his (Ober’s) own stewardship of a philosophy aimed at awakening his fellow man to the sheer joy of being, and being here, on this planet.” 

Our father was the first president of the Oberholtzer Foundation. Three years after Ober’s death, our father was forced to give that position up due to his own health issues. It was one of the most difficult things he had to do, knowing that his health was failing, because he knew that the fragile foundation needed a leader and direction. He died a few months later (in November 1980). As you recall from part one, our mother, Marnee, who was immersed in the foundation from day one, took a position on the board after our father’s death. She knew that our father clearly cared deeply for his life-long friend, mentor, and father figure.

These key preliminary actions taken by our parents and other close friends laid the groundwork for the Oberholtzer Foundation as it exists today. Had the islands been sold into private ownership, the Oberholtzer Foundation would be lacking the essential component that drives the Foundation today—the islands.