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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Bunny Hop -- Piano Festival Created by Mankato Legend

Bunny Just Piano Festival will be held on campus this week.

2016-02-22
Robb Murray, Mankato Free Press, 2-14-2015

On a cold Minnesota day at the coffee shop in downtown Mankato, John Just did his best to pretend we weren’t there to talk about him.

His mom, the great piano maven Bunny Just, should be the focus of all of this, he says. After all, he explains, the piano festival at Minnesota State University, Mankato bears her name, and that’s what this article is about. Right?

Or perhaps, he suggests, some of the focus should be on Dale Haefner, the man who works tirelessly to bring top-notch musical acts to campus throughout the year and who help coordinate the Bunny Just Piano Festival.

And what about the kids, he wonders, the ones with all the talent who come to the Bunny Just Piano Festival? Surely they’re more important than he is.

Humble. Gracious. Complimentary. Kind. That’s John Just. And even though his financial support has been a major part of the festival’s survival, he’s very much more comfortable deflecting any and all attention to someone else.

Unfortunately for Just, this article intends to focus on him at least a little. His attention to his mother’s legacy has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Ask Just about his mom and he’ll peel open a three-ring binder full of photographs, newspaper clippings, service club awards — and so much more — lovingly preserved and meticulously documented, each piece a chapter of a story of a woman who is uniquely Mankato.

The Bunny Just Piano Festival is what the public knows about her life. She was a great piano player, and someone who truly believed in giving back to the community. The festival, which brings piano-playing high school students to the Minnesota State Mankato campus for piano competition and instruction as well as performances by high-profile talent, takes place this week at Minnesota State Mankato (see related info).

“I can think of no other person in Mankato who contributed so much to music over so many years than mom,” Just said.

Bunny Just started playing at age 4 and, until she died at 99, never really stopped. She was born in Jackson but lived nearly all of her life in Mankato.

After passing up a chance at a regular gig in New York, she decided to stay in the Mankato area. She played for radio stations and performed in concert throughout the region.

Then, in the 1960s, Bunny Just started using her music to help people suffering from dementia, saying that she found the music therapeutic for them.

“I see now, comments in the paper, that music is a great benefit for people with dementia and I’d think, yeah, mom was doing that years ago,” Just said. “She moved into Old Main Village in the late 80s. She played up there all the time. I’d pick her up and she’d go play somewhere else.”

Just says that, even though he didn’t play piano himself, he loved to watch his mom play.

“She just loved this town,” he said, “and that was her payment.”

That wasn’t her only payment.

Bunny Just also donated $100,000 to Minnesota State Mankato to establish an endowment to fund the piano festival. That endowment, however, hit rough times when the recession hit. That’s when John Just came in and loaned a little financial help to the endowment. His donation helped keep the festival humming along smoothly.

Like his mother, John Just — who taught in Mankato Area Public Schools for 20 years — enjoys seeing the good the festival does for young people.

“I’m thrilled with today’s young people,” said Just, who also donates to music programs at Franklin Elementary School and Dakota Meadows Middle School. “My link with my mom was permanent. Philanthropy comes from her mindset.”

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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