The City Mourns the loss of Mayor Mary Anne Ackerman


Bavarian blue and white bows will line Main Street in Frankenmuth as the community mourns the death of its mayor, Mary Anne Ackerman. Her legacy to her family and her community is defined by her many civic leadership roles as well as her passion for education.

Ackerman, 66, died Feb. 24 after a short, intense battle with cancer. She will be remembered as a compassionate leader who cared about the success of people and the community.  “Mary Anne’s love and appreciation was immeasurable,” said Bridget Smith, Frankenmuth’s city manager. “It changed the culture of city hall and everywhere she went.

“We feel devasted and overwhelmed by the suddenness of her passing. It is as if a veil has been put over everything. Everyone is in a state of shock.”

Condolences from Mayor Karl-Heinz Fitz, mayor of Frankenmuth’s sister city in Gunzenhausen, Germany, praised their partnership and her open and engaging personality. “She radiated an incredible liveliness,” he wrote. “On behalf of the city of Gunzenhausen, we will always fondly remember Mary Anne Ackerman in our hearts.”

Ackerman was elected to the Frankenmuth City Council in 2016. She was serving her third, two-year term as mayor when she passed away. City Councilman Joe Cramer described her as “genuine” and said she had a significant impact. “Her patience and interest in other peoples’ stories helped me see things differently,” he said.  “She had a great love for our community and worked so hard to make every single person she touched feel special.” 

Her husband, Harry Zells, whom she married in 1982, confirmed her trademark communication style. “She brought out the best in everyone, saw the best in everyone including children,” he said. “She had a desire to hear and tell other people’s stories. By the time she was done with a conversation, the person was feeling good about themselves.”

Beth Bernthal Reindel, another city council member, praised Ackerman as a remarkable visionary, who had a wonderful ability to engage and include everyone. “Her positive attitude, creative energy and diligent work ethic focused on ways to improve things. We are so grateful for her devoted service and the impact she left on us all. She will be sorely missed.”

Adele Martin was the principal of Frankenmuth List Elementary when Ackerman became Superintendent of the district. There’s a theme to what people who worked with her observed. Martin also referred to a cultural change when Ackerman took office.

In her words, “Mary Anne was brave and courageous. She served in a very bad time for public school funding and had a budget shortfall right away. Her focus was on how to cut the budget with the least impact on kids.” Martin said one reason Ackerman could tackle difficult problems was that she was good at navigating relationships. People were willing to move from one role to another completely different one because of her persuasion. Martin emphasized that “because of Mary Anne’s ability to make unavoidable budget cuts without kids feeling it, financial stability has been assured for a long time to come.”

In addition to being a creative problem solver, Ackerman loved kids, and as Martin said, “Kids loved her.  She loved nothing better years after retiring from the school district than to be greeted enthusiastically by a former student she hadn’t seen in eight years. And as soon as she retired, she started work on Kids’ Kingdom, getting the whole community involved in creating a sorely needed play park.”

Ackerman was born in Reese on May 8, 1957, the oldest of six children. She attended St. Elizabeth Catholic School in Reese for the first eight grades and then graduated from Reese High School. Her parents farmed and later had a recreational vehicle sales business. She worked in both, weeding beans and sugar beets and later when she could drive, transporting boats and campers.

She attended Delta College, working part-time and paying her own college tuition. She saved enough to pay for the last two years of college at Michigan State University where she majored in Education. Later she earned a master’s degree in school administration at Saginaw Valley State University.

One of her early jobs was to work in the Reese summer migrant program for preschoolers, a federal educational program for migrant children, while their parents worked in the fields. As she earned her degree, she served as the director of the preschool program, making sure that there were services for children who were not as fortunate as those with a more stable life. She also worked as a waitress in Frankenmuth.

Her actual teaching career began in Millington where she spent more than 10 years, teaching grades preschool through sixth with her last year there as the principal of Glaza Elementary School. She came to Frankenmuth to take the job as the principal of Lorenz List Elementary School in 1995. Subsequently she was named assistant superintendent in 2005 and then superintendent of the Frankenmuth Schools from 2006-2016.

Michael Murphy, superintendent prior to Ackerman, commented on her growth through those years. His observation was that he and others saw clearly that she would be a great successor. “We understood how good she would be in that role before she did.” While Ackerman’s passion was always there, her confidence grew with each step.

“The consensus is that Ackerman was an ambassador for learning. ‘Tell me your story,’ was her most frequent question and she listened and learned and shared those stories.”

Craig Douglas, retired superintendent of the Carrollton Schools and a close colleague of Ackerman’s, described her as strong and humble. “We were closely aligned in our core values, emphasizing faith, a positive school climate and the needs of the students as first priority,” he said. “She was a passionate school leader.” 

He added that Ackerman was sensitive to the needs of all the schools in the Intermediate School District, whether Saginaw schools or outlying districts like Merrill and Chesaning. Her priority was to create inclusive and high-achieving educational environments for all students.

When she retired from the Frankenmuth School District, her educational experience and  administrative expertise qualified her for a job in higher education. She became the Executive in Residence and co-director of the Gerstacker Fellowship Program at Saginaw Valley State University, a leadership development opportunity for select teachers and administrators throughout the state of Michigan. 

John Kaczynski, Executive Director of Government and Community Affairs at SVSU said she was the longest serving Executive in Residence in the Gerstacker Fellowship Program, serving nine years, from 2015 – 2024. “In those years, she transitioned the program into the Community of Learners she envisioned,” Kaczynski noted. “She always said, ‘There are no dead ends in education’ and ended every correspondence with a voice of encouragement signing off with ‘Lead On.’”

Kaczynski, referring to Ackerman as “the definition of a servant leader,” recalled the number of foreign trips they made with their scholars. “No matter where we were, she embraced the culture fully and enthusiastically. And when she saw possibilities in colleagues and others, she recruited accordingly. For instance, she pulled me into the Frankenmuth Noon Rotary Club when she was president.”                                                       

Ackerman’s experience in education and encouragement by community members propelled her into local politics in 2016 when she was elected to the City Council unopposed. She won her bid for mayor in 2018 eclipsing the incumbent who held the job for 33 years. She currently was serving the final year of her three-term tenure.

In an online Call of Leadership podcast in 2020 she talked about the challenges of leading the community during the COVID-19 crisis, seeing a silver lining in the community’s tenacity and ways of working together. She used her involvement at SVSU to set up vaccine appointments for residents at their drop-in clinic and volunteered her time in the parking lot on vaccine days. When Frankenmuth was quiet with shops closed and no visitors walking the streets, she did not despair. “It is my vision to look forward, take a look at what we are doing and how we can improve and grow,” she said.

She emphasized communication in government, writing columns in The Frankenmuth News about the workings of city government – even publicizing her own tax bill and water and sewer monthly statement to explain the charges so residents would understand. “In her communication she was transparent,” Councilman Cramer said. “She made the invisible visible.”

Frankenmuth’s 62-year partnership with the German city of Gunzenhausen is also impacted by her death. Dan Haubenstricker, Frankenmuth’s sister city committee chair, praised her hospitality when German and other visitors arrived. “She took time to visit, showcase places and answer questions. She was a wonderful ambassador for our community,” he said.

Ingeborg Herrmann, responsible for the city partnership in Germany, also complimented her friendliness, cooperation and reliability.  “Mary Anne has given our town partnership a new face,” he said. “She always had people in mind. She had a talent for engaging everyone.” Friedrich Kolb, chair of the sister city committee in Gunzenhausen, added, “Her death is a great loss for our two cities and for our partnership.”

 Ackerman credited her early work with the Frankenmuth Historical Association, including her years as president, as one of the best ways she got to know the community. Jonathan Webb, who was the executive director of the Historical Museum at the time, said she was strong leader and team builder. “She has been a wonderful role model for anyone interested in public service.”

In addition to the Historical Association, there were other organizations in the community that benefitted from her leadership. She was the president of the Frankenmuth Noon Rotary Club and was honored with their highest award, becoming a Paul Harris Fellow.  She also served on the Wickson District Library Board. Susan Piesko, past president of that Board, had this to say about her. “She appreciated first-hand how important the library is in people’s lives. Her daughter Emily is almost a daily user of the library and Mary Anne herself was a dedicated reader. As with other projects and areas where she was engaged, she was there during some tough transitional moments and made a difference.”

Ackerman’s son Zachary has the last word. “There were times when I called my mom that I was frustrated to hear her tell other people’s stories when I wanted to hear about her. But I finally realized that was her story – her ability to learn from and appreciate other people was who she was. And I got the benefit all the time.”

A memorial service will take place Saturday, March 16, 2024, at 11:00 a.m. at Blessed Trinity Catholic Church.

In memory of Ackerman, residents can display a Bavarian blue and white ribbon which can be picked up at the Frankenmuth Florist or city hall. A $5 donation to Frankenmuth City Beautification is suggested.