More than 35 years ago, Mary Anne Dundas matriculated at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, with a specific career objective in mind.
“My plan was to be a United Methodist minister,” Dundas said.
But with her attendance dependent on a vocal scholarship she received, it didn’t take long for her original goal to be derailed.
What might be a revelation to Mankato-area audiences familiar with her full-throated contralto from numerous singing appearances at sporting events, Merely Players productions, weddings, funerals and fundraisers is this: “I can’t read a note of music. I don’t know an ‘A’ from a ‘C.’”
That prevented Dundas from acceptance in the Morningside Choir — a condition of her scholarship — but her innate talent soon landed her a role in a professional production of “Godspell” in Sioux City.
“I really wasn’t mature enough for the (college) experience at the time,” said Dundas, who ultimately left Morningside after two years.
“It took me until I was almost 50 to figure out what I was meant to do.”
Born in Rochester to parents Charlie and Anne, the irrepressible Dundas spent her early years in Le Sueur where her father was, in fact, a United Methodist minister.
“We moved to Mankato just before I started ninth grade when he was appointed district superintendent for the United Methodist southwest region,” she said.
Dundas eagerly embraced her role as a Mankato West Scarlet. Throughout high school, she sang in choirs, exuded school spirit as a cheerleader and performed in theatrical productions.
“I played a French woman in the musical ‘Charades,’” she said. “The only English word my character knew was ‘Yes.’
“And I was in the chorus of ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ and sang some backup vocals in a ‘Back to Back with Broadway’ revue.”
But other than her Sioux City turn in “Godspell,” that was the last of Dundas’ music involvement for several years.
Twin Cities years
Practicing tough love, Dundas’ parents were firm: If she wasn’t in school, she was on her own.
“When I left college, I wasn’t allowed to move home because I’d dropped out,” said Dundas, who relocated to the Twin Cities.
“I had to find a way to make it on my own — and I didn’t sing for years.”
Initially, Dundas lodged with a minister and his wife, but they were equally unsuccessful at curbing the lively young woman.
“I was not a good tenant.”
She was hired as a telemarketer at a firm in Bloomington; conveniently close to her office stood Fuddrucker’s restaurant, where she took a second job.
“I was telemarketing full time and then I’d walk across the parking lot to work at Fuddrucker’s.”
About a year later, Dundas gained employment as a property manager for an apartment complex, and that gig led to her next job.
“One of my renters worked at a St. Paul car dealership and thought I’d be a good car salesperson — so I sold cars for seven years.” she said.
“And I was really good at it,” Dundas added, mentioning she started selling Nissans, progressed to Mitsubishis and finally sold conversion vans at the legendary Wally McCarthy’s Lindahl Old’s dealership.
Her spiritual journey continued, too, when, at her dad’s suggestion she attended Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church.
“It was the only predominantly Black UMC church in St. Paul,” said Dundas, who resumed singing in the Camphor choir.
Fortuitously, Dundas was asked to sing the national anthem at a March of Dimes fundraising walk.
“I had to write down the lyrics because I didn’t know them by heart.”
Shortly after having her son Charlie in late 1996, Dundas left the Cities for a better property management job in North Mankato. Once there, she reconnected with a former high school classmate, married and had her second child, GraceAnne Sterling, in 2001. She and her spouse later divorced.
Back to music
With a few national anthem appearances under her belt, Dundas agreed to sing at a Mavericks football game to promote rentals for an apartment building she was then managing.
Soon, Dundas was an in-demand national anthem soloist.
“I sing at Mavericks hockey, basketball, volleyball and wrestling matches,” Dundas said, “and I have four dates this summer with the Mankato MoonDogs.”
She has also sung prior to Mankato West sporting events — logical because Dundas shares her West connection with GraceAnne, a 2020 West graduate finishing her first year at the University of Minnesota, and sons, Cory and Charlie, both 2015 West alumni. Charlie is a barber at Unique Hair and Tattoo and the proud father of her two young grandsons.
“I’d like to sing the national anthem for a Twins game,” Dundas said.
With two slight style exceptions, Dundas resolutely believes the national anthem should be sung as written.
“No fancy stuff. People tell me they appreciate that — but I love Whitney Houston’s version, and I enjoyed Lady Gaga’s at President Biden’s inauguration.”
Dundas dove back onstage in the 2001 Merely Players Community Theatre production of “Nunsense” as brassy Brooklyn native Sister Robert Anne, a role she reprised in three later shows.
“Mary Anne enjoys performing and that comes through,” said Maggie Maes, Merely Players artistic director.
For over 20 years, Maes has watched Dundas shine in roles large and small.
“First of all, she is wonderfully talented,” Maes ssaid. “Her comedic timing is very good and she’s a team player who asks what she can do to help; she always embraces new people.
“And the girl’s got pipes — she can sing.”
Dundas, a chorus member in Merely Players’ 2020 “Jesus Christ Superstar” (its run was clipped when COVID-19 struck), is slated to appear in next fall’s comedy “Rex’s Exes” as a mortuary cosmetologist.
“Mary Anne is humble but very funny,” Maes said. “The more you get to know her, the more she blows you away.
“What she does off-stage is incredible; she would truly give you the shirt off her back if you needed it.”
Still, Dundas would readily admit her empathy flows from her own life’s share of trials.
Within the first six months of 2018, Dundas endured two spinal fusion surgeries in an effort to relieve extreme back pain. Her stint as the dragon in Centenary United Methodist Church’s production of “Shrek the Musical” (she wore a cumbersome dragon head throughout) may have exacerbated an old injury.
“I’ve not had dramatic physical improvement (following the surgeries), and I couldn’t sing at all for eight months because my vocal cords and voice box were pulled to one side for the first six-hour surgery,” Dundas said.
“But the surgeries forced me to quit smoking after 33 years, my voice eventually returned, and it’s better than ever. I’m so thankful for that.”
When her parents moved to Keystone Senior Living several years ago, Dundas began working there as a part-time activities assistant.
“They had an old karaoke machine and once a month on Friday nights I did karaoke,” she said. “The residents loved it, and I thought, ‘This could be something.’”
Dundas invested in a karaoke machine and set up Mary Anne’s Music (easily found on Facebook), booking hourlong sing-alongs for private parties and at senior centers.
A good friend and musical counterpart, Michelle Parsneau, owns Kato Karaoke.
“My job is to build community, and karaoke is just the method,” Parsneau said. “Mary Anne is the same way; she’s changing lives.”
Parsneau applauds Dundas’ approach.
“Mary Anne has such warmth and her style is very participatory,” Parsneau said. “She gets people engaged, and soon they’re smiling, foot-tapping, hand-clapping, even dancing.
“She makes everyone feel good about being there.”
When the pandemic slashed Dundas’ business last spring, similarly crimping her national anthem and solo schedules, she sought additional employment.
Kim Alinder, campus administrator at Birchwood Cottages in North Mankato, hired Dundas as a full-time activities assistant.
“It’s fantastic,” said Dundas of the job she has held since August 2020; she is also cross-trained for resident care.
“They wanted me to help bring music back to the (28 memory care) residents, and I do group sing-alongs plus a lot of music therapy-type services with individuals.”
“I’ve never enjoyed a job as much as this.”
Alinder believes Dundas is a perfect fit.
“We are blessed to have her,” said Alinder, noting Dundas provides weekly church services at Birchwood including hymns, prayer, lessons and readings.
“Music is so important in the lives of our residents, and we love Mary Anne’s positivity, energy and creativity,” Alinder said.
“She is beloved by our residents and has helped meet their spiritual needs at a time when we didn’t have other alternatives.
“Mary Anne truly has a heart for service.”
Despite a circuitous route, Dundas has indeed achieved her early life goal of ministering.
“I’m passionate about doing whatever I can to help people and make their lives better,” Dundas said.
“Years and years ago, my dad told me the most important thing is the connections you make with others — and this is the perfect balance of singing, entertaining and connecting.”