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Fifty Lakes city clerk loves her job, small town life

When Karen Stern and her husband, Jon, grew tired of working at Liberty Carton Company in Minneapolis, where they’d both worked for more than 20 years, they decided a change of pace was in order.

They got that change in 1996 when they resettled with their three children from their home in Cologne, Minn., to Emily as the new owners of Up North Gifts/Sweets N’ Such.

The transition was a smooth one because they were already familiar with the area; Jon’s parents lived on Lake Roosevelt in Outing, and the family visited nearly every weekend in the summers.

The seasonal nature of their small craft store led Stern to seek additional employment, so in February 1997, she became the deputy clerk for the city of Fifty Lakes. She moved up the ranks less than two months later, when the city clerk left the post. As clerk-treasurer, she’s been managing the city’s budget, taking meeting minutes and assuring everything is administered properly for the city for the nearly 17 years since.

“I love my job here at the city,” Stern said. “There’s never a dull moment.”

Stern grew up in Cologne and as a child, she enjoyed ice skating on a nearby lake, gardening and spending as much time outside as she could. She graduated from high school in 1975 and couldn’t wait to get out of her small hometown to move to Minneapolis.

A few years later, she met her husband at the wedding of her best friend and his best friend, and the couple married in 1983. When they had their first child, Jake, a year later, it wasn’t long before Stern returned to Cologne with her Minneapolis-born husband in tow.

“Once you grow up in a small town, you kinda go back to that, because it’s home,” she said.

The couple had two more children, Jessica and Jared, and their oldest was in sixth grade when they made the move to the even smaller town of Emily. It wasn’t long before Stern was involved in the community in numerous ways. Her children began attending the former Emily Charter School, where she joined the school board, acting as president for a couple of years.

She and Jon also became members of the Lakers Lions, he as gambling manager and she as his assistant, and they joined the Emily-Fifty Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

In 2000, she became heavily involved in planning the new city hall building in Fifty Lakes, which was completed in 2005.

Stern said she enjoys the sociable nature of small communities and doesn’t miss living in the Twin Cities.

“You don’t feel like you have to be scared to leave your car running outside,” she said. “That show where they all say, ‘Hi, Norm,’ ‘Cheers,’ it’s not unrealistic here. That’s really how it is.”

Stern, her husband and daughter live in a home attached to their store, which keeps them busy seven days a week and on holidays, particularly in the summer months. They are currently preparing to open for the first weekend of the year next week.

When she’s not busy with the store or the city, Stern enjoys reading murder mysteries, watching movies and playing Texas Hold ‘em with Jon. One day, the couple plans to retire, but they don’t intend to return to the city or become snow birds.

“If anything we would move further north,” she said. “We just want to find a little place where we can have a garden and not necessarily have to talk to anybody.”

Chelsey Perkins can be reached at Follow her at and on Twitter @PEJ_Chelsey.

Chelsey Perkins
Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her Bachelor's degree in professional journalism from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Perkins has interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before joining the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.
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