Seward’s ‘first person you see’ is moving on


Eighty-year-old Katherine Nicolay knew what she wanted to do since kindergarten—be a secretary. Nicolay, front desk person for Seward Neighborhood Group and Seward Redesign since 1987, wanted to be a secretary so much, she was disappointed that shorthand wasn’t taught in kindergarten and made up her own system.

Before working for SNG and Redesign, Nicolay typed more than 500 University of Minnesota thesis papers over “a quarter of a century.” In 1987, computers were coming into vogue and Nicolay wasn’t getting as much typing work. The two neighborhood organizations had just gotten together. She was hired by original SNG and Redesign executive directors Phil Muessig and Caren Dewar.

Dewar said, “Katherine was the best hiring decision I ever made. She’s provided stability, competence and excellence to Redesign. Besides that, she’s a dear friend.” Nicolay says she has loved her work as front desk person over all these years, but now she’s ready to go. “I’m 80. Don’t you think it’s time?” she quipped.

The clincher came when an apartment became available at Augustana Senior Housing with two bedrooms, a bathtub, and a convenience store in the complex—one of the main reasons for moving there, she said.

“I really miss the Riverside Market,” she said. It was a convenient walk from Riverside Towers West where she’s lived since 1984. Although the Seward Co-op is only a block further, “you notice that block when it’s really hot or really cold,” she said. To get to work from her new home, she’d have to get a bus transfer, where there is no bus shelter, unless she walked to Cedar Avenue. “It’s just out of reach. Buses aren’t very good after the LRT came. It changed [Route] Number 8.”

David Fey, Redesign executive director from 1995 to 2001, said, “Katherine was kind of the mother hen for the group—always warm and supportive, and yet kept us to task.” He added, “For a woman of her generation she was gung ho about learning new technologies. For example, when we changed our accounting software, she rolled up her sleeves and learned how to use it right away. She helped us change from a paper to a computer system.” He summed up her significance: “When dealing with organizations that always experience controversy, as neighborhood groups do, it’s good to have an emotional center in the office. She provided that for us.”

She’s seen Franklin Avenue undergo many positive changes due to Redesign’s work. “Everything along Franklin is Seward Redesign,” she said. She recalled that the Smiley’s Clinic building was in such bad shape when Redesign bought it, “you could look down and see the basement; look up and see the sky.”

When Redesign purchased Seward East and Seward West Towers, it kept them affordable, she recalled. “Otherwise, it would have gone market rate,” she said. Nicolay and her mother moved into Seward West in 1984 after her father died. She and her parents lived in a Seward double bungalow from 1971 to 1984.

At Augustana Senior Housing, she’ll volunteer for the Elliot Park neighborhood group. “I want something to do outside of where I live,” she said. An enthusiastic arts patron—she’s a regular at Orchestra Hall, Rarig Center, the Southern Theater, and Ted Mann Concert Hall among others—she said she’ll miss the university-area events when she moves.