Cover photo for Mary J. Lickteig's Obituary
Mary J. Lickteig Profile Photo
1936 Mary 2021

Mary J. Lickteig

February 18, 1936 — August 6, 2021

When Mary Lickteig wrote her own biography it was, not surprisingly, factual, succinct, mostly about education and free from extraneous details. It begins like this: “Born February 18, 1936 in Lu Verne, Iowa, a home delivery by her father during a raging blizzard.”

The winter of 1935-36 stands, to this day, as one of the most brutal winters in Iowa history. The temperature in northwest Iowa fell below zero on Jan. 18 and remained there for the next 35 days. Blizzards pounded the state, halting trains, killing livestock and isolating farm families, like Mary’s. Coal ran short and people burned corn and furniture to stay warm.

Thirty-five and a half inches of snow fell near Lu Verne that February. As of Feb. 6, 22 Iowans had died. And on Feb. 18, Mary Jane Lickteig was born.

She was the fifth of six children. Their father, Ambrose, was a farmer who had moved to Iowa from Kansas. Their mother, Rose McMahon Lickteig, was a teacher turned homemaker.

As a preschooler, Mary suffered perhaps the most agonizing period of her life. Her older siblings went to school, and she had to stay home. To ease her disappointment, her dad made her a chalkboard and her mother packed her a lunch pail, like she did for the older children, and Mary played school all day.

She finally got her turn to go to real school. And on her first day, she wore a red and green plaid shirt with a white collar, white socks, brown oxfords and a white bow in her hair.

After third grade, she transferred from the rural St. Benedict School to Algona because her older siblings were in high school there. While her mother was busy registering the older children for classes, Mary registered herself for fourth grade.

The take-charge child began blazing her way through classrooms en route to a 32-year career teaching in the education department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

She graduated from St. Cecelia Academy in Algona in 1954, attended Briar Cliff College for two years and worked as an A&W carhop during the summer to help pay her way. She thought long and hard before splurging on a candy bar in those days. She got her first teaching job in a fourth grade classroom at St. Mary’s School in Waterloo, Iowa. After two years there, she taught elementary school for two years in Belle Plaine, Iowa.

She earned a bachelor of science degree in elementary education in 1961 at Iowa State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Iowa. Then, she taught elementary school in Mason City, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb. She earned a master of science degree in elementary education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1967, and began teaching at UNO that year.

She earned a doctor of education degree from the University of Oregon in 1972.

An expert in children’s literature, Mary published widely on the topic. Her articles and book reviews appeared in professional journals. Her textbook, An Introduction to Children’s Literature, was published in 1975.

Mary loved books. “She appreciated every single page of a book, from the title page and copyright page, to the dedication page and ending page,” former student Patty Boscardin Gray said. She taught her students how to pick the right books and how to use them in lessons. And she did not hesitate to say, “That’s a waste of paper” if she thought a book wasn’t any good.

She helped the UNO library acquire a collection of children’s books (the good ones) and she herself collected every Caldecott Award winner — from 1938 on — then donated them to the university.

As a professor, she began every one of her classes by reading a children’s book out loud to her students. “She had the perfect read-aloud voice…” said former student Becky Schnabel. “Lots of people can read, but her voice just took you to a different place when you were listening.”

She was a stickler on penmanship. When Nancy Edick was in undergraduate school, Mary distributed Palmer Method handwriting workbooks and expected students to complete them. “I honestly thought it was silly,” said Edick, now dean of the UNO College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. The books, designed for elementary students, contained letters of the alphabet drawn in dots so children could trace them to learn proper letter formation. “And I believe we got graded on them,” Edick said.

She learned the value of the exercise on her first day student teaching when she was asked to write the schedule on the white board. The students filed into the room, Edick said, they looked at the white board, “and I heard one kid say, ‘Wow, she must be a real teacher.’ ”

Over 60 percent of the teachers in the Omaha metro area and one-third of teachers statewide have at least one degree from UNO, Edick said. Mary taught many of them.

“It’s immeasurable, the impact that she’s had,” Edick said.

Mary inspired learning though reading. She inspired teachers to instill the joy of literature and the joy of learning, and she prepared them to do that in real-world classrooms, where some children lived in poverty or had language barriers, said John Mackiel, a former superintendent of Omaha Public Schools.

“Dr. Lickteig knew that teaching was incredibly challenging, and she also knew that it was personally and professionally satisfying,” Mackiel said. And she had profound faith in her students. Teaching professional content was one thing, Mackiel said. “But you also had individuals who experienced the classroom dynamic of Dr. Mary Lickteig who came out, in my opinion, better human beings and, as a result, better teachers.”

Students wanted to do their best for Dr. Lickteig. “She became almost like a parent type person or aunt because you truly wanted to do your very best because you never would want her to think less of you,” former student Kathy Peterson said. “She was one of those people you truly never wanted to disappoint.”

“That’s a theme you’re going to hear: I didn’t want to disappoint Mary,” said Kathy Danielson, chair of UNO’s teacher education department. When anyone wanted to get something done in the department, they’d get Mary on the committee. She worked hard, but she had fun. Her students, too, knew that she had a great sense of humor.

Mary orchestrated advancement for students and younger faculty.

She was Debi Mackiel’s professor in undergraduate school. “When I became a teacher myself, I got a call from her one day saying, ‘I think it’s time for you to take some graduate courses, and I have an opening for a graduate assistant, and I’d like you to be mine.’ ” Mackiel accepted. “Later on, she knew there was an opening for a person to be coordinator of field experiences and student teaching,” Mackiel said. “I went back to the university in that capacity.”

Mary mentored young faculty, including Danielson. “I still remember her coming to my office with a folder. And she said to me, ‘Put everything you’re doing professionally in this folder because you’re going to have to report it all in an annual review… And she physically handed me a folder and said, ‘You’ll thank me later.’ ” They published together.

Mary wanted the best for people. She introduced graduate students to Omaha restaurants and museums. In the fall, she invited them to her home for dinner and a craft because she thought they could use a night out. They made Christmas tree ornaments and Santa napkin rings; felt was her medium of choice.

At Halloween, she hosted a party for graduate students who had young children, and each child left with a goodie bag and a book.

Throughout her career, she continued to visit elementary schools for research and to supervise student teachers. Sometimes she would ask teachers to invite her to come in to give a lesson. “I don’t think she ever wanted to forget what it was like to be a classroom teacher,” Danielson said.

After she retired, Mary took a year to finish writing projects, to sell her house and much of her furniture and to research volunteer opportunities. In August 1998, she moved into Bethany House, a Catholic Worker house in Winona, Minn. She cooked, cleaned and served meals to homeless people as a full-time volunteer for eight months before moving back to Omaha.

Mary kept three journals, a reading journal, a writing journal and a “regular journal.”

She chronicled life, her own as well as current events. She analyzed both and critiqued the behavior of world leaders.

She used a fountain pen and made lists on yellow legal pads. She made lunch for her cleaning lady.

She valued productivity and treasured library time. She didn’t know how people could be bored. “I can think of an endless number of things to do,” she wrote in a journal. Insomnia in the middle of the night was a gift of time.

She arrived five minutes early and preferred socializing in small gatherings. Four is a large group, she thought. Five is a mob.

She hated winter. She capitalized “Spring.” She celebrated forsythia, tulips, peonies, iris, spirea and spectacular moons.

People who talk in church made her cranky. As did cell phones, college football and the descent of the English language into a string of “like,” “you know,” “he goes, I go,” “you guys,” and “stuff like that.”

Mary never married. While trying to puzzle out the reasons for that a few days before her 72nd birthday, she noted that she had collected other people’s reflections on being single, “and I have put the collection in my file drawer in a folder called ‘Single File’ — how can I be single with a sense of humor like that?”

But hers was a good life, she wrote. “Indeed, I have always tried to take advantage of the freedom my single state allows.”

Mary traveled to all 50 states and to Europe. She loved Iowa and took many trips there with friends to explore the quaint hotels and historic sites tucked in its small towns.

She played mah-jongg, went on retreats at the Benedictine Mission House in Schuyler, Neb., and regularly did volunteer work.

She volunteered at Siena Francis House and visited elderly women, including Doris, whom she saw at least twice a week. She bought groceries for Doris, helped her organize her drawers and her closet and regularly helped her look for her rosary, which Doris always suspected was stolen.

Mary wondered why Doris repeatedly lost her rosary. “And then I figured it out,” she wrote. “That rosary is the most important thing in her life.” Doris worried about it, hid it and forgot the hiding place. “And, I have to think it is kind of nice for a rosary to be that important to someone,” Mary continued. “Still, in my imagination, I see some thief saying, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I’m praying on a stolen rosary.’ ”

Mary treasured her parents, her two sisters and her three brothers. She doted on her 12 nieces and nephews, all Kossuth County, Iowa, farm kids, like she had been. When she was home for a visit, she treated them at Dairy Queen and A&W. When they visited her in Omaha, she took them to the zoo and the theater, and she introduced them to ethnic foods. Equally impressive were her perfectly appointed, beautifully decorated homes, where they could each find their picture on display. She brought them Christmas gifts, which always included a book, selected specifically for each of them.

When her nieces and nephews grew up, Mary began sending a group letter to them and their families at Christmastime. She listed every name in the salutation, highlighting the names of anyone who had joined the family in the last year. The 12 has grown to 45.

Mary had a stroke on Easter Sunday in 2018. Though it wasn’t always obvious, she tired easily after that, had some difficulty walking and started to forget things. Over time, her correspondence started to include a few misspellings and her penmanship became less precise.

In March, she was diagnosed with vascular dementia. She stopped reading because she wasn’t able to retain a storyline. When Debi Mackiel visited Mary for the last time, in May, she brought The Bear Who Saw the Spring, by Karla Kuskin, and she read to Mary the way her former professor had read to her.

A rapid decline in health this summer left Mary weak. In July, doctors found a mass in her colon, and she died from a subsequent infection on Aug. 6. The woman born into the world during a raging blizzard left it in the height of summer.

Mary was predeceased by her parents, her sister Joan Lickteig Elbert and brother-in-law Paul Elbert, her brother Charles and sister-in-law Helen Lickteig and her brother Ambrose “Tim” Lickteig. Her sister Sr. Joan Lickteig died on Aug. 18.

Mary is survived by her brother Donald Lickteig and his wife, Evelyn, her 12 nieces and nephews, their nine spouses, 23 children and one grandnephew’s wife.

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.”

- The first line of Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial donations be made to Siena Francis House in Omaha, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha, or the Benedictine Mission House Schuyler, Nebraska.

Private family burial in Algona, Iowa and Celebration of Life forthcoming in Omaha, Nebraska.

John A. Gentleman Mortuaries

To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of Mary J. Lickteig, please visit our flower store.

Service Schedule

Past Services


Friday, August 13, 2021

12:30 - 1:00 pm (Central time)

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Mass of Christian Burial

Friday, August 13, 2021

Starts at 1:00 pm (Central time)

In Lieu of flowers memorials to Siena Francis House in Omaha, Catholic Charities of the Archdioces of Omaha or Benetictine Mission House in Schuyler, Ne.

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Graveside Service

Friday, August 13, 2021

Starts at 2:00 pm (Central time)

Calvary Catholic Cemetery

, Algona, IA 50511

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Celebration of Life Service

Sunday, September 5, 2021

4:00 - 7:00 pm (Central time)

University of Nebraska Thompson Alumni Center

6705 Dodge Street, Omaha, NE 68182

In Lieu of flowers memorials to Siena Francis House in Omaha, Catholic Charities of the Archdioces of Omaha or Benetictine Mission House in Schuyler, Ne.

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