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Midwinter festival organizer named Hankookin Heikki 2023

Press release

HANCOCK, Mich. — When she was a child, Mary (Aho) Brunet knew she had Finnish roots, but in her youth and among her family and friends, ethnic culture wasn’t readily celebrated.

“We weren’t encouraged to be too much into the Finnish stuff,” she said. “We had a culture, but we really weren’t part of the culture.”

That’s why joining the City of Hancock’s Finnish Theme Committee was so appealing; Brunet joined the group about a decade ago, and since then has been most recognized for her tireless work organizing and executing the Heikinpäivä festival parade. This year, she will see the parade from a different perspective – from the seat of distinction provided for Hankookin Heikki.

The honor of Hankookin Heikki is bestowed annually by the City of Hancock’s Finnish Theme Committee, which hosts the Heikinpäivä Midwinter Festival each January. The award is given to a person who has exhibited extraordinary effort toward preservation and promotion of Finnish culture in the Copper Country and beyond.

Brunet was selected by the Finnish Theme Committee as this year’s honoree, in large part for the work she’s done that isn’t always headline-generating.

“She’s been one of our very vital behind-the-scenes persons, and we thought it was time to recognize her,” said Finnish Theme Committee Chairman Jim Kurtti. “She’s the person who maintains the parade, takes care of all the details.”

Along with organizing the parade, Brunet can usually be found lending a hand wherever festival work needs to be done, whether that’s in the kitchen, at a registration table, or taking minutes at a meeting – she’s been the Committee recording secretary for a number of years. She’s also a willing volunteer for numerous FTC subcommittees.

That hard-working spirit, which she perhaps inherited from her Finnish immigrant grandparents, carried her throughout her adult life. After earning an associate’s degree from Suomi College, Brunet – a Hancock High School graduate – worked at Michigan Tech University. She then took a job with the State of Michigan in a lab that did testing for public health; she worked there until her retirement. While working at the lab, she completed a bachelor’s degree at Northern Michigan University, graduating in 1990.

Brunet also taught at Gogebic Community College for a couple of years, and served as Franklin Township clerk for nine years.

Despite all of her involved, the Finnish Theme Committee was able to keep the Hankookin Heikki honor a complete surprise.

“I was absolutely taken aback,” Brunet said. “I thought we would be discussing other people. It is an honor. That’s about the best way to describe it. It was an honor to even be nominated.”

Heikinpäivä festival-goers can see Brunet in the parade at 11 a.m. on Saturday, January 28. The parade is the unofficial kickoff to a full day of activity in and around the city of Hancock. For more about the festival, which has events throughout the month, visit Finlandia.edu/heikinpaiva.

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