Marilyn Todesco, R.I.P.
This evening my closest friend at Wheaton College, Marilyn Todesco, passed away after a difficult and intense battle with renal cancer. Marilyn became sick back in late November, had what seemed like successful surgery, and was supposed to back to work at the beginning of June. On Memorial Day weekend we learned that her cancer had returned in very aggressive form.
The great things a person does in life should define them, not their disease, so I want to use the rest of this post to talk about how important Marilyn was to me personally, to our department and to our building.
Marilyn was the building secretary for Meneely Hall, which meant she handled the needs of English, Hispanic and Italian Studies, and German as well as every faculty member who couldn't figure out the copy machine, every student confused about classes and every other possible problem that arose.
Her office was, in the words of the poet Sue Standing, our hearth, and the fire burning in that hearth was Marilyn's personality. Always ready with a laugh or a word of comfort, always calm even in the midst of chaos, always caring even at the most stressful times, Marilyn held everything together. If our building was a remarkably collegial place, it was mostly due to her, to our desire to please her (she disliked conflict) and her ability to listen.
Marilyn was the first person I met at Wheaton after being hired there. She sent me around on all my errands across campus (locksmith, human resources, mail room, information technology), and then she chatted with me about her family, her dog and life in general. This started a pattern. Every day I would come in 15 minutes early so that I'd have time to stand in Marilyn's office and talk to her.
Her granddaughter was born about a year after my daughter, and so Marilyn and I would swap child stories and show artwork and pictures and enjoy raising kids together. Marilyn was very good on life advice. When my wife was pregnant, she and I had one of those fights that are in retrospect idiotic, but at the same time impossible to stop. I was telling Marilyn about it the next day. "Go home, unplug the electric pencil sharpener" (this was the source of the stupid fight) "and bring it down and put it in your office," said Marilyn. Her advice worked, and she always got a laugh out of telling the story.
Marilyn had me keep my eye out for students who might want to work in the office. She trained them, trusted them, befriended them, and in the end often did more good than any other individual on campus. I know of more than one student whom she physically walked over to the counseling center and into an appointment. I can think of two students whose lives, it is only a minor exaggeration to say, she saved. I saw her put band-aids on students' hands, give out water, candy and tissues, and more importantly, provide a ready ear and a mind that knew every single thing about Wheaton College.
If it weren't for Marilyn, there would be no Tolkien Studies, no Bibliography project, no high level of productivity. If it weren't for her, I don't think I would have survived my first few years at Wheaton. If not for her, I might not have gotten through the really difficult months of adjusting to a new child and then, later, to a second child.
My children loved Marilyn and couldn't wait to see her. She was one of the first adults outside of the family with whom they had a relationship, and she was the first person at Wheaton I brought my kids to meet when they were only a month old and I carried them in the baby bucket.
She loved the college, and she loved each of us, "her professors." She knew us, understood us, and took care of us. Only her family was more important.
I joked once to Marilyn, about three years ago, that there were only four people on campus who were impossible to replace. Everyone else, all the faculty, the administration, etc., could go, but there were four people Wheaton couldn't do without. She was number one on that list. No one in the room disagreed.
I don't know how we will go on without her. I think we have already learned how much of a difference one person can make, and it will only get worse as we realize that she really is not coming back. Now we will have to try to live up to the standard she set.
I am heartbroken, but also grateful that I got to spend 9 years of my life with such a good, true friend. I will always miss her.