Sarah-Maud Weyerhaeuser Sivertsen was the granddaughter of lumber magnate Frederick Weyerhaeuser.
She loved grand opera. But in life, her own style was far from theatrical. When it came to philanthropic giving, Sarah-Maud Sivertsen's generosity was exceeded only by her modesty.
It was typical that her first gift to Minnesota Public Radio in 1967 came unannounced. On a snowy February morning in Collegeville, Minn., the home of what was then called "M-E-R," Minnesota Educational Radio.
MPR President Bill Kling told the story at a 1992 banquet honoring Sarah-Maud Sivertsen and her husband Bob.
"One day out of the blue, a month to the day after we went on the air, I got a letter from a Mrs. Sivertsen," said Kling.
“In appreciation of the great pleasure that your FM classical music programs have brought to me and my husband ... please accept the enclosed check. Keep up the good work.”Sarah-Maud Sivertsen, in a letter to MPR
"Gentleman, in appreciation of the great pleasure that your FM classical music programs have brought to me and my husband at our country home, please accept the enclosed check. Keep up the good work."
The letter was signed, "Sarah-Maud W. Sivertsen."
"Enclosed was a check for $5,000," Kling recalled, "which was about five times the amount of any check we had received from any listener up to that time.
With that Bill Kling walked out the door, got into his car and headed out into Lake Wobegone- land to find those above average listeners and thank them.
"And what I found were two very friendly people who didn't seem to mind my unannounced visit," Kling continued. "And in thanking them for their letter, and their check, I discovered this was the absolutely first fan letter that she had ever written."
That fan letter turned out to be the first in a long series of letters from Sarah-Maud and her husband, Bob.
Inside the letters were checks, which always seemed to arrive just at the moment they were needed the most.
In 1968, they rescued KSJR in Collegeville from extinction. In the years that followed, they built KSJN in St. Paul, boosted KJSR's signal, and paid for a new KSJN antenna.
Another crisis came in May, 1971.
The MPR board, which now included Bob Sivertsen, met to plan the next fiscal year. But the bank balance showed that there probably would not be a next fiscal year.
MPR President Bill Kling said, once again, Sarah-Maud and Bob Sivertsen came to the rescue with a gift that saved the day and saved MPR.
"That is probably the closest that we came to failing," Kling said. "The institution was about to come to a halt at that point, and that gift kept it going and got us off to a successful footing."
From that footing, the Sivertsens helped MPR build more stations across the state.
When the Minnesota Orchestra built a new concert hall, Sarah-Maud Sivertsen, the music lover, saw to it that this new treasure would be heard on MPR's stations by funding a new broadcast studio in Orchestra Hall, in time for opening night.
Thirty-three years later, live broadcasts of the Minnesota Orchestra remain a Friday night tradition on MPR.
In 1985, when the Ordway opened in St. Paul, the Sivertsens were there again, paying for a studio to broadcast the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Meanwhile, MPR's Park Square studios on the edge of downtown St. Paul were bursting at the seams. The time had come for a new building.
Bill Kling knew there would be skeptics on the board.
"Bob and Sarah-Maud made the lead gift to the building, and they made it before the board had voted to proceed," Kling said. "My June 1978 letter to them states that, 'Your decision has made it possible for us to get a start, and convince all of the others that the major hurdles can be overcome and that we're well on our way.'"
The architect's plan for the new studios left space on the top floor for a large patio. Originally, that space was meant to be used for a recording studio. But there wasn't money for that part of the project.
"In December 1979, in keeping with their philosophy of doing it right the first time, Bob and Sarah-Maud provided a gift that would build the studio, and we did do it right," Kling said. "It simply would have been a deck if they hadn't responded to the idea that a recording studio was a critical element of this building. We named it after Sarah-Maud's mother, which we thought was appropriate, because of her interest in music."
The very first broadcast from the new Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser studio came on a Sunday morning in St. Paul.
The show was St. Paul Sunday Morning, with host Bill McLaughlin. The program with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was the first of a stream of programs to be broadcast across the nation and, sometimes the world, from the studio.
The Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser studio was unique in public radio. But Kling said there was something missing.
"It was a great studio, but having hoisted a piano up over the deck with a crane about three or four times, we found it was impractical to keep hoisting pianos in over the roof. And I talked a little about that, and one day a brand new piano came to us, a gift for Christmas 1980."
The Sivertsens later donated another piano for the newly restored Fitzgerald Theater.
In 1982 they provided a completely different kind of keyboard -- MPR's first computer.
It's appropriate that Sarah-Maud Sivertsen would commit so much of her energy to the classical music on MPR. Her mother was a singer, and introduced Sarah-Maud to classical music at an early age.
In her youth, Sarah-Maud heard some of the great operatic stars of the era. She talked about it in an interview with the Minnesota Historical Society.
"The last time Caruso was ever on tour, he sang here in St. Paul, so I got to hear Caruso sing," said Sivertsen at the time.
As a little girl in Little Falls, Minn., she met the famous contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Sarah-Maud remembered that magical encounter too.
"She was giving a concert up in St. Cloud. We were still in Little Falls, and we went down to hear her. People used to love it when she made records like 'Silent Night,'" Sivertsen recalled. "Afterwards, we were standing in the garage waiting to get into our car. She was German, and I was this little blonde thing, and so I was patted on the head by Madam Schumann-Heink as she went by and said something sweet in German to me."
In 1969, Sarah-Maud Sivertsen funded MPR's weekly full-length opera broadcasts, and in 1974 sponsored the Metropolitan Opera. Both programs continue to this day.
Sarah-Maud Sivertsen was deeply committed to building cultural institutions.
In keeping with her modest nature, her name was not well known. But her gifts touched many lives, including everyone who ever listened to Minnesota Public Radio.