April 5, 1999
Volume 51, No. 26
Hark! Marion Dearing keeps Emory presidents in tune
It takes bold action to ascend to the Office of the President of any American university, much less an institution like an Emory, and for Marion Dearing it was no different. Bold action, indeed.
Back in 1988 Dearing was a member of Glenn Church, just as she is now. On the Sunday she was scheduled to remind the congregation of a picnic in Lullwater the following Sunday, she wore appropriate picnicking attire to make the announcement: T-shirt, shorts, even a Mickey Mouse baseball cap. "But the picnic is next week," someone in the pews called out, at which point Dearing simply shrugged and said, "Oh well, this is how you're supposed to dress next week, then."
In attendance at Glenn that morning was Emory President James Laney, who approached Dearing after the service and asked her what she did. "I asked, 'What do I do when?'" Dearing recalled. "And he, in his inscrutable Jim Laney style, went 'Hmmmm...' and walked away." Turned out Laney was looking for a new executive assistant, and Dearing's boldness and grace, as well as her wry sense of humor and a reserve of rusty office skills, won her the job.
Nearly 11 years later, Dearing has now served under current President Bill Chace for about as long as she did under Laney, who stepped down in 1993, and while she said the two men have very different styles as Emory's chief executive, both are "remarkable leaders" with uncanny abilities to pick the right people for jobs and give those people room to work. "I have a great deal of respect for both of them," Dearing said. "They both have a keen sense of humor, which is good for me--I may not be able to locate my pencil, but I can always find my sense of humor, and without that I wouldn't be able to function."
The praise is mutual. "Marion Dearing is that very entity itself: the indispensable person," Chace said. "She makes my life as president possible. Here are some of her qualities: intelligent, resourceful, efficient, a master of detail, unfoolable, lucid as a prose stylist, insurmountable as a barrier against nonsense and all foolish intrusions, and fiendishly witty."
In her time at Emory Dearing has made herself indispensable not only to the president but also to other boards and organizations around campus. She serves on the Emory Women's Center advisory board, as well as the the Emory-Glenn Advisory Committee. For her efforts Dearing received an Award of Distinction in 1994. She also makes a point to attend many of the cultural and artistic events on campus, citing the recent "God's Trombones" tribute to Congressman John Lewis as an especially impressive performance.
Finally, in addition to feeding her mind and her soul on campus, Dearing makes use of University facilities to maintain the third component. "I've been going to Blomeyer Fitness Center faithfully for over a year," she said. "I try to go in the morning because it's easier to exercise before I'm awake enough to realize what I'm doing."
With all the time Dearing spends on campus, it's easy to understand when she responds "Is there a life outside of work?" to a query about her non-Emory existence. But yes, there is, and for her it consists of a husband, two children (one of whom will graduate from Oxford College next month), three cats, one dog, faithful postponement of yard work and a harmless addiction to "I Love Lucy." "At any moment around the world, somewhere 'I Love Lucy' is being shown," Dearing said. "That's what keeps me going."
But it is Dearing herself who keeps the Emory's Office of the President going. For her part, she loves being privy to the inner workings of the University's highest office and holds the highest respect for not only the two full-time presidents for whom she's worked but also Billy Frye, who served as interim president during the 1993-94 academic year. "I feel lucky to have been exposed to the intelligence and superb leadership they exemplify," Dearing said. "There are a lot of very smart people at Emory, and I like being around smart people."
Dearing also enjoys meeting the people who come through the president's office, folks like Jimmy Carter, Sam Nunn, Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama, to name just a few. In fact it's the newness, the not knowing what to expect on any given day, that keeps Dearing's job so fresh and interesting and helps her perform it so well.
"I could not do my job without her," Chace said. "To quote Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, 'Untune that string/ and hark! What discord follows.' She is, to speak figuratively, the string in my administrative life that must never lose its tune."
Of course, Dearing is privy to all the melodies that flow from Chace's office, however harmonious or dissonant. "I have an intriguing storehouse of anecdotes from my years in the president's office," she said, with a smile. "I'm currently negotiating with Andrew Morton to work on my memoirs for publication in 15 years--after I retire, move and change my name."