Distinguished Alumni to be recognized

Published 6:42 pm Monday, September 4, 2017

The Education Foundation of Albert Lea and Albert Lea Area Schools have announced their recipients of the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award.  The foundation will be “Celebrating 17 years of Success in 2017” at this year’s banquet Sept. 14 at Wedgewood Cove in Albert Lea. 

Recipients include Jack Brill, class of 1955 (posthumously awarded); Anne W. Kepple, Ph.D., class of 1975; Brad K. Arends, J.D., class of 1977; and Mary Harrison Johnson, class of 1978. All friends, family and community members are invited and encouraged to make a reservation to attend this celebration and to share in the foundation’s commitment to the community’s children. 

Distinguished Alumni awards are given annually to graduates of Albert Lea High School who have achieved success in the area of business and economic achievement or humanitarian and public service achievement. In addition, awards may be given posthumously to candidates in either of the categories. The public is encouraged to nominate graduates of ALHS. Nomination forms are available on the foundation’s website.

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The following is information about two of the four Distinguished Alumni to be recognized:

Brad Arends

Arends attributes much of his success to his father instilling in him a growth attitude, a focus on thinking about growth and the challenges that come with it.  Also important, he asserts, is the preeminent team he’s had the privilege to work with. 

Brad Arends

In 1967 Brad Arends moved to Albert Lea with his parents and two siblings.  His father, Al, taught and coached at Lea College at that time.  Brad Arends graduated from ALHS in 1977, earned a degree in business administration with a minor in political science from Augustana College (Sioux Falls), and his law degree from Washington University (St. Louis) in 1984.  His last semester found him interning on Capitol Hill in Washington for Sen. Dave Durenberger, who was chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee.

Following law school he joined his father, then an Albert Lea businessman, at Arends Associates as its fifth employee. Despite being the owner’s son, he was given no special treatment.

“Dad made me start at the bottom, learning the business from the ground floor up,” Brad Arends explains.

Eventually, under Brad Arend’s guidance, the firm partnered with three other regional firms in the early 1990s to form Alliance Benefit Group, a national confederation of retirement plan consulting/recordkeeping firms that today has 17 offices around the United States.  The Minnesota office of Alliance Benefit Group grew from fewer than 20 employees to over 140 employees in three locations with clients in 48 states. 

One important factor he sees in this growth of his firm is the willingness to embrace change. The company has never been afraid of change — in fact, they embrace it. 

“Every time there has been disruption in our industry, we have grown from it,” Brad said. That notion of change has been especially apparent over the last two years. Recently they sold the administration/recordkeeping portion of their business to Alerus, a merger that he feels was “good for our clients, our team, and the community of Albert Lea.”

He is quick to admit the importance of his business relationship with the city of Albert Lea.  Back in the late 1980s the Arends’ small financial services business needed more space to grow. Then city manager Paul Sparks took a chance by helping finance a building for the business on Clark Street.  According to Brad Arends, the city of Albert Lea has been, and continues to be, a great partner. He said, “I like to think that we have under-promised and over-delivered.”

Today he is part owner and CEO of intellicents inc., a financial services consulting firm focusing on employee benefits and personal wealth management headquartered in a restored historic office building on Broadway in downtown Albert Lea.  By retaining jobs and with an impressive restoration of an aging downtown Broadway building, Brad Arends has shown his commitment to the Albert Lea community.

Because of the hard work, determination and commitment he has put into growing a thriving company with a strong local team, the firm has received national recognition from Plan Sponsor Magazine as its 2016 Retirement Plan Advisor Mega Team of the Year, the 2015 Fidelity Be Greater Award Winner for Retirement Advisor, and the 2014 Best-in-Retirement Business IMPACT Award from Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.   

Brad Arends and his wife live in Albert Lea and have three daughters.

Mary Harrison Johnson

Johnson was the third child of D. Romone and Ellen Harrison in Albert Lea.  Born in late 1959 with a severe cleft palate, she was never able to lie on her back (her tongue would occlude her airway) or be fed with a bottle, thus she was fed with a breck feeder an ounce at a time. At the age of 13 months, she had surgery to repair her cleft palate.  Despite many ear infections and with the help of complicated dental procedures, she was able to speak, hear and talk as a normal student when she began kindergarten. Johnson’s late mother Ellen stated, “At the time I was able to take care of her, I didn’t feel it was difficult.

Mary Harrison Johnson

After attending Hawthorne Elementary, Brookside Junior High and ALHS, Johnson graduated in 1978 and eventually attended Lutheran Deaconess School of Nursing, graduating with her R.N. in 1983 — all this despite a counselor once recommending a vocational education was more appropriate for her than college. That same year she married her husband, Joel (class of ’80), and they made their first home in Albert Lea.

Johnson began her nursing career at Naeve Hospital before she and and her husband moved to Minneapolis in 1985. Initially employed at Mount Sinai Hospital, she joined the staff at Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota in 1989, where she is still employed as a surgical pediatric nurse.

Not only is Johnson a leader in the surgical unit at Children’s, but she is also committed to Children’s Surgical International, an organization that is “changing lives, one child at a time.”  This humanitarian organization provides free surgical services to enhance the lives of underprivileged children around the world. It also promotes “in-country self-sufficiency through professional training and support.” She volunteers her time and money traveling to underdeveloped countries to surgically help children with facial deformities, along with orthopedic, urologic, plastic, and ear/nose/throat surgeries.

Johnson feels helping these children is her way of giving back, and these medical missions have become an extremely important part of her life. She has many stories of her experiences with her patients in CSI’s surgical mission sites in Ghana, Liberia, Mexico, Peru and Ethiopia.

In 2009 Johnson joined the CSI board of directors, where she spends countless hours helping plan and fundraise for these vital mission trips.  Johnson and her husband, Joel, live in Burnsville  and have one daughter, Katie. Ellen Harrison shared, “Our family is proud of her gifts to humanity.”