Gwen Bohlke was born just a little north of Redwood Falls to parents Bea and Dick Brown. She is one area resident who has lived a globetrotting life that has brought her around the world and back again.
After graduating from Redwood Falls High School in 1969 she attended the U of M at Morris and received her degree in education. She was unable to find a teaching job.
“The only time I ever answered a newspaper job ad,” she said, “was for a position as a nanny near Washington, D.C.”
That job lasted a year and positioned her for adventure.
“While attending church I met someone who worked for the District of Columbia government and was offered a job at the city council,” she said. “That led to a two-year position for Mayor Walter Washington and then for Mayor Marion Barry for an additional five years. D.C. was an exciting, fun place, and I took advantage of whatever I could.”
During her life’s chapter in Washington, D.C., Bohlke was able to have many significant experiences: tea at the White House under Jimmy Carter, two inaugural parades, the lighting of White House Christmas trees, many opportunities for travel and she was in D.C. for the July 4 bicentennial celebration.
Bohlke even made local news, despite the distance and explained that the Gazette wrote an article about her in 1977 when she was in one of the three D.C. buildings taken over by gunmen during the Hanafi Siege hostage situation that took place March 9-11. She was in a group rescued by a SWAT team.
As exciting as life had been in D.C., Bohlke explained she felt God nudging her in a new direction.
While taking a walk, her feet brought her to a Peace Corps recruitment office. Though she did not speak the language, they accepted her application and assigned Bohlke to a two-year post in Honduras where she lived in San Marcos de Ocotepeque, only five kilometers from what had been, in that time, a United Nations refugee camp.
“The town is near the border of El Salvador and Guatemala. Where I worked in a grade school, finally using my college degree and started a library that is still used today,” said Bohlke.
She explained that her village was lucky, because it had running water even if she had to boil it before drinking. Bohlke learned to enjoy coffee there.
“People would pick beans off the trees in backyards and then brew it,” Bohlke said. “I got to see how people lived elsewhere.”
Upon returning to the U.S. Bohlke said she gained an appreciation for two things in particular.
“Water I didn’t have to boil and the freedom of movement… not being stopped regularly to show papers and identification,” she said.
Returning stateside in the mid/late 1980s, she moved to Chicago, where she had a brother. With her internal compass fixed on compassion, she worked towards entering the nursing field.
She earned a degree from Rush University and worked for 10 years at an HIV/AIDS unit in a large city hospital in Chicago during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Bohlke remembers the time fondly and could have seen herself staying.
“Eventually, to continue advancing in my career, I would have needed to earn a Master’s degree. I laid awake in bed one night and prayed that God would show me what to do about it… should I get further education?” she said.
That was when she felt God clearly direct her in what to do next: enroll in seminary and study to enter ministry.
“And so I moved back to Minnesota; that was about 1998,” Bohlke said. “I realized this was always what God meant for me to do, and he led me on an incredible journey to get me there.”
Another part of what led her to a pulpit in such a roundabout fashion was that she had seen so few female role models.
“The call was always there,” she said, but she hadn’t seen females in church roles other than as pastor’s wives or as missionaries in that time period.
While studying at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities she provided pastoral duties at two churches.
“Immanuel and Homer United Methodist Churches taught me at least as much as I learned in seminary,"Bohlke said.
She graduated with a Master of Divinity in 2002 and was appointed to serve in Slayton and Lake Wilson for six years. She moved to another appointment in Montevideo for another nine years after that.
As she neared the end of that tenure and considered retirement she decided she would return to Redwood Falls in order to be nearer to her mother, but Dec. 24, 2016, Bea Brown passed away.
“Even though my mother was gone, I decided to move back to Redwood anyway,” she said.
Bohlke retired July 1, 2017, and relocated.
She has had opportunities to visit England and several Eastern European countries. She’s visited Petra in Jordan, Egyptian pyramids and ridden a boat across Galilee. Including locations for the Peace Corps, and the countries bordering the U.S., she’s also visited several other countries for pleasure and for missions work.
Since her return, she has involved herself in community activities. Bohlke is a member of the local Rotary Club, Friends of the Library and the 20th Century Study Club.
She attends local sports events, especially basketball, and provides pulpit supply for local churches.
“I really enjoy living in Redwood Falls,” she said. “It’s been fun re-connecting with high school friends.”
Her class will celebrate its 50th reunion next year.