Friday, August 8, 2014

Marilyn Ortt: A Mentor and a Friend

This is a different type of post than I normally write, and one that is vastly more personal. I've been trying to write it for months, but it's been difficult. Please forgive me if I ramble a bit; I feel like I need to write it all.

There's a lot of talk out there about the importance of having a mentor, for any facet of life really. I most often hear about mentoring in the context of academics, especially in grad school, which is certainly important. During the past few months, however, I've spent a lot of time thinking about having a mentor in the more general sense, and who my mentors are. For now, I'll focus on one: Marilyn Ortt.

You may know that between my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, I spent a year working as an Americorps VISTA with the Friends of the Lower Muskingum River, a watershed conservation organization in my hometown of Marietta, Ohio. It wasn't an entomology job, but I had a blast and enjoyed my year. It was a good time to reflect on what it meant to give back to my community and work with a group that made the health of the river and the community around it its main focus. I met and worked with many wonderful people during this time, and worked closely with Marilyn, who was the president of FLMR.

I knew Marilyn before I started my job, having first met her during my freshman year at Marietta College. When I was a senior, she invited me to give a talk about the wheel bug (the focus of my capstone project) for the Marietta Natural History Society. By this time, I knew her better and knew that she was involved in many of the conservation projects in Marietta. She used to be a state botanist and had a strong interest in the natural world, and I had a shy admiration for her. While working with her as a VISTA, I quickly learned that this admiration was justified.

After I finished my VISTA term, I started my graduate work at the University of Arkansas, but kept in contact with Marilyn via email, updating her on what I was doing and inquiring about the goings-on in Marietta. We were both busy, so weeks would pass between our correspondences, but it was nice to touch base every so often.

In late May, I was busy preparing for an intensive sampling project on the outskirts of Fayetteville. I was also planning my trip back to Ohio, to take place in mid-June to collect millipedes. I was hoping to see friends while I was there, including former professors and Marilyn as well, since I hadn't seen her since December.

As I was returning home after spending a few hours in the field, however, I received a phone call from a friend. Marilyn had died earlier that evening.

Marilyn had been undergoing chemotherapy for a while, which I knew about, but she preferred to keep details of her health private. She didn't want others to worry about her, which was just part of her personality. She was extremely motivated and passionate, and didn't want concerns about her to distract from whatever work was going on.

Despite knowing that she hadn't been in the best health, the news was still a shock to me. I drove home, still digesting the news, but only made it half a mile before my eyes welled up with tears. Her death affected me more than I would have thought, and I found myself crying a few more times in the following days.

My friendship with Marilyn wasn't rooted in personal knowledge of each other's lives. I'm not sure she even knew the names of my parents, for example, but we never discussed things like that. Whenever we would talk, our conversations were about nature or the surrounding community. I think our friendship was based on our shared passion for the natural world, and Marilyn was an astounding encouragement to me in that respect. She was a botanist by training, which complemented my interests as an entomologist. She didn't know insects as well as she did plants, so she would always happily listen to me talk about whatever particular group I was interested in at the time. She had an insatiable curiosity for natural history, and she used her curiosity, passion, and motivation to accomplish great things during her life.

Her obituary lists some of these accomplishments, and illustrates how much of an asset she was to her community. I spent many hours at the natural areas she helped establish, especially the Beiser Field Station east of Marietta and the Kroger Wetlands. It was in these places that I cut my teeth on natural history, finding millipedes, identifying plants, and standing in awe of hundreds of flashing fireflies. Marilyn was too modest to take much credit for establishing these areas, and would surely try to downplay her role in developing my interest in natural history. But the truth is that much of her work trickled down into my development as a scientist, in ways I wouldn't recognize until after she was gone.

I think the mark of a good mentor is that they push you to want to be a better person. Marilyn had a subtle way of doing that for me. After working closely with her for a year, I found myself with a new sense of pride in my community. As a VISTA, I led trail and river clean ups, taught children and adults about the benefits of a clean river and environment, and learned much more about local history. I hadn't previously appreciated where I came from, but getting involved in my community with FLMR changed that. It gave me a new, strong motivation to apply my knowledge and skills in entomology to highlight the neat diversity of arthropods in southeast Ohio, which still informs my work today, in both Ohio and Arkansas.

My writing can't do justice to the impact Marilyn had on me, but it's important that I try. We often focus on the well-known celebrities of various disciplines and laud their work, which is certainly well-deserved. Often, however, it's the unsung heroes of our communities who have put in their time and hard work to do what they could to improve their communities that impact us more. The people living in southeast Ohio live in a better place because of Marilyn's hard work. Her name might not be known by many outside of Ohio, but that doesn't diminish her accomplishments.

I like to think of Marilyn when I run into difficult times. I never heard her complain, and she was always pursuing goals and juggling tasks, which usually led to her being late for our lunch meetings. Her passion was unlike anyone else's, and she tapped into it to accomplish great things.

One of my favorite memories with Marilyn was planting a chinquapin oak outside FLMR's office. She had bought a young one to plant near an older tree outside the office, in the hopes of getting it to develop acorns a few years down the line. She was delighted to have it planted, thinking of how large it might grow in the future. I'm not sure if she ever heard this phrase, but I'm sure she would agree: "The best time to plant a tree is yesterday. The second best time to plant a tree is today."

I'll end this post with the following paragraph I wrote on Facebook after I heard the news of Marilyn's death. It was hard to write, but turned into a nice post of people sharing their memories of Marilyn and how she affected their lives, all for the better. Marilyn was an exceptional mentor and an even better person, and the world would be a better place if there were more people like her:


Marilyn was a wonderful person, and undoubtedly one of the most driven that I've known. I had the privilege of working with her for a year during my VISTA service, and even before then, she was always happy to listen to what I was doing with my bug stuff. Despite her battle with cancer, she never stopped doing what she cared deeply about, which was making her community a better place to live. Whether it was finding funding for the recycling program, planting trees, or making opportunities to educate the public about the environment, she poured her entire being into her work. She was an inspiration, and will be dearly missed. Marietta won't be the same without her, and it's to everyone's detriment that she's gone. She did so much good work, and it's up to the rest of us to pick up her mantle. Her obituary sums it up best: "She strongly believed that you should leave this world in a better place for future generations and she did so." Rest in peace, Marilyn.

 Marilyn surveying some land in the watershed with FLMR's former watershed coordinator, Jesse Daubert

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