Harlene Marley H’05, a distinguished member of the Kenyon faculty for almost 40 years, died at her home in Mesa, Arizona, on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. She was 76.
A native of Oklahoma, Marley was born on June 21, 1940. She grew up on her family’s farm near the village of Helena, which she left to attend and graduate from Oklahoma City University and earn a master of fine arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University. She briefly taught at independent schools in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh and then at Central Missouri State College (now the University of Central Missouri) in Warrensburg.
The first woman to be hired into a tenure-track position at Kenyon, Marley arrived on campus in the fall of 1969, with the College’s first female students, as an instructor of drama. In the ensuing years, she became the first woman to gain tenure, to serve as a department chair, and, in 1987, to win promotion to full professor.
Although he graduated several years too early to study with Marley, Ted Walch ’63, now a teacher of film, philosophy and theater at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, California, was a believer from the beginning. “When [drama department head] Jim Michael spread a wide net, asking for advice about a new hire, and the name and the person of Harlene Marley were put in front of several alumni with whom Jim had kept in touch, there was unanimous enthusiasm,” he recalled. “As one inelegant alumnus put it, ‘She’s one tough broad.’ And indeed she was, in all the right ways.
“Harlene was a brilliant teacher, coach, director — and negotiator. She took no prisoners, but she commanded fierce loyalties. My favorite recollection has to do with the last time I saw her. We sat together at a screening of Josh Radnor’s film ‘Liberal Arts,’ in which Allison Janney played a thinly disguised Harlene. I turned to Harlene after the movie and said, ‘I loved Allison’s Marley.’ She replied: ‘Wait till you see my Janney.’ That was Harlene. To the point — and memorable.”
Walch closed his reminiscence with three words heard again and again in recent days: “I adored her.”
In answer to the many questions she received over the years about her status as a female professor at an until recently all-male institution in 1969, Marley recalled being asked, in her early days in Gambier, to bake cookies for a faculty meeting. She swiftly disabused her colleagues of any ideas about her doing that sort of thing by asking them which of the male faculty members had baked cookies.
President Emeritus Philip H. Jordan Jr. H’95, who arrived at Kenyon six years later, in 1975, noted his and his wife’s great sadness at Marley’s passing and said, “Sheila and I remember Harlene as a strong, active, singular and influential presence in the Department of Drama and on campus. She was an authentic theatrical persona, our leading lady in the early days of coeducation and throughout her career at the College.”
Marley quickly became a legendary Kenyon professor — and performer, with a particularly memorable turn as Martha opposite fellow drama professor Thomas Turgeon’s George in a campus production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” She developed an extraordinarily impressive and diverse list of acting and directing credits, on campus and off. Her fame spread beyond Gambier through her work with the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival, which presented her with its National Distinguished Service Award.
Also well-known for her administrative skills, and for her grasp of the goals of a liberal arts education, Marley was often called upon for tasks that were far removed from the drama classroom. Especially noteworthy among those tasks was the leadership of Kenyon’s libraries, where she served as interim director, to great praise, during the 1987-88 academic year.
‘You’re going to be OK’
In October 2003, 34 years into her career at the College, Marley delivered the Founders’ Day address, a meditation on the meaning and history of the Matriculation Oath. In May 2004, she honored that year’s graduating class with a Baccalaureate address whose closing words many have remembered over the years: “I want to tell you what you need to hear, and it is also true. I want to take you by your elbows and look into your eyes and say, ‘As you make your beautiful way into the world, it’s going to be all right. You’re going to be OK.’”
Marley retired from Kenyon in 2005. She was awarded an honorary doctor of fine arts degree at that year’s Commencement, with a citation by a longtime colleague and friend, Professor of Drama Thomas S. Turgeon H’08 P’89, ’93. That citation read, in part: “In the course of [your] thirty six years, you produced a body of work for the stage, from ‘Marat/Sade’ to ‘Metamorphoses,’ that was always lucid, engaging, and crackling with forthright perception. … You have brightened this campus community … simply by being in our midst.”
“Throughout my three years at the Yale School of Drama, I never had a female professor, so I’m probably a professor today because of the example of Harlene Marley,” observed Wendy MacLeod ’81 P’15, ’17, professor of drama and James Elder Michael Playwright-in-Residence, who was Marley’s student and then her colleague. “Harlene was cool, she was tough, she dressed really well, and she was unsentimental. She had my back as a student when I got in trouble for saying I didn’t
want to be considered a ‘female playwright.’
“Harlene was professionally active and intrepid; she’d be out the door and off to China or Italy the day after classes ended. She often traveled great distances to see the work of former students. Fiercely loyal, she came to see my plays in Chicago and Salt Lake City. Looking back through correspondence, I was reminded that after she had retired she traveled to Alaska for the Iditarod! How cool is that?
“When I began to teach, she and Tom Turgeon were what I aspired to. They didn’t hover or mentor excessively; they believed in me and trusted me to do the job. Since she's retired there have been many times when I’ve wanted to ask her how she handled the various challenges of being a senior faculty member.
“The only time Harlene ever went soft was over the Jack Russell she adopted in her final years at Kenyon, a terrible dog named Nettie.”
Tributes to Marley have come from her former students around the country, among them well-known actors, directors and writers who kept in touch with their friend and mentor long after leaving Gambier.
“I was so saddened to hear the news of Harlene’s passing,” said Allison Janney ’82, an Emmy Award-winning actor and current star of CBS’s “Mom.” “She will remain one of my favorite people, directors and teachers that I’ve ever had. She was inspirational to me in so many ways — even my character in Josh Radnor’s film ‘Liberal Arts,’ in which I attempted to imitate her dramatic cadence that so many of us grew to love!
“I remember once at Kenyon, I was going through a difficult time, and Harlene’s sense of humor, kindness and intelligence helped me navigate the situation. I will always think of her and hear her wonderful laugh, and I thank her for giving me such a wonderful start to my life in the theater!”
Actor and director Josh Radnor ’96, himself a Marley student, said, “I adored Harlene. I would surely not be the actor and man I am today were it not for her gentle guidance and faith in me. I know she touched and inspired so many others in similar ways in her many years at Kenyon.
“Along with the sadness at the news of her passing, I’m overwhelmed with happy memories of Harlene’s warmth, grace, tenderness, patience, sly brilliance and wicked sense of humor. What a blessing to have known, worked with and learned from Harlene.”
“Everybody will mention her laugh,” astutely predicted Chris Eigeman ’87, an actor, director and writer in Brooklyn, New York. “It was a joyful crack of electricity and it was the highest praise. You always knew that she knew what you were capable of, how far you could reach, and you always wanted to live up to that. And when you missed, she would cock an eyebrow like out of a ’40s film noir, and say, ‘Try again.’ It was inspiring, if intimidating.”
And, he added, “She could joyfully deliver a surprisingly airtight defense of the TV show ‘Alf.’”
“Harlene always seemed like a woman of mystery to me,” remembered Vern Oakley ’74 P’16, a filmmaker and writer based in Chatham, New Jersey. “Then one day in my freshman year, I volunteered to help with making costumes for a mainstage production, and over sewing machines and needles and thread, we started to talk. I said I was an Oklahoma native; she said, ‘Me too.’ I told her I was born in Cherokee, because that’s where the hospital was, even though we actually lived in tiny Helena, which didn’t show up on many maps. With a draw on her cigarette, Harlene said, ‘I’m from Helena.’ That was just crazy, and yet it turned out her father and my grandfather were best friends.
“Over my Kenyon years, Harlene became my advisor and mentor. She guided me through my senior production, my first screenplay, and a synoptic major that was among the first at the College. After leaving Gambier, every once in a while she would send me a clipping from the Helena paper with news of folks in our small hometown. And even though we shared this incredible connection, she still seemed to be a woman of mystery — a beautiful quality, in short supply in today’s world.”
Bob Davis ’81, now a professor in the Theatre Division of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, reported, “When I arrived at Kenyon, that great drama department was led by Jim Michael, Tom Turgeon and Harlene Marley. All three have left us now, but all three left a stamp on me and many others. I was lucky enough to be cast in Harlene’s production of ‘The Crucible’ when I was a freshman — Wendy MacLeod was in it, too — and that kind of turned my head. I was supposed to be an English major, but eventually gave it up for ‘the theatre.’
“I’ve now been teaching actors and working as an actor for more than 30 years, and I still hear Harlene’s voice, her humor and her wisdom as I teach and perform. Oh, yes, I still have her fabulous pumpkin pie recipe that I make every Thanksgiving. I’m happy to share!”
Amanda Berg Wilson ’97, artistic director of The Catamounts: Theatre for the Adventurous Palate, in Boulder, Colorado, recalled, “When Harlene cast me in ‘Rumors,’ she was relentless that I speak my lines without any shadow of my Texas twang. When I lamented that she had successfully lost her accent when I could not, she gently chided me, in her Harlene way, ‘Oh, I haven’t lost my accent. I know exactly where it is.’
“At the ‘Rumors’ cast party on Parents Weekend, she told my mother, ‘Amanda is a wonderful actress, but what I really think she is, is a director.’ I was upset at the time — I wanted to be an actress! But she was right, and I should have listened to her then and there and not waited many years to realize directing is my primary calling.
“I’ll remember the way she held a room when directing or teaching. Her full throttle laugh. ‘Blah-ta-da, blah-ta-da.’ How when I sheepishly asked, after she caught me smoking a cigarette during an intermission, if she ever missed smoking, she said ‘Every minute of my life.’”
“I still wear a large ring I bought in Colorado in 1988 because it reminded me of the kind Harlene always wore,” said Susie Walker ’87, an actor living in New York City. “I hope she knew that, a year after graduation, I spent the summer in Colorado doing melodrama, sadly judging it against her standards, all because I wanted to absorb a part of the Southwest that seemed to infuse so much of her force.
“Harlene knew at Kenyon and in ensuing years, up until she had trouble replying, that an open door to her office, a seat near her in church, an invitation to lunch whenever she was in New York, a long drive to Columbus in the midst of a school day to see a show with which I was touring, a card from wherever she was traveling, a holiday greeting, an email of even one line, were what helped me to remember that everything would be all right, to quote her beautiful Baccalaureate address, and remind me that she had never gone away.”
Ed Ball ’88, who has divided his career as a fundraiser and writer between New York City and Atlanta, also remembered the rings. “Harlene taught with an iron fist bedecked with a multitude of rings that would click when she wiggled her fingers while commenting on something wonnnnnderful,” he wrote. “Those hands were powerful. They made bold gestures with open palms at the end of outstretched arms. They waited — intimidating, restive, ready for action — on her hips. They pointed at us as she posed sudden questions in the middle of her lecture. They held cigarettes and cigarettes and cigarettes. They drew curiously shaped question marks. They wrote comments and letter grades with felt tip pens on lined index cards. Breaking the A-minus barrier was the stuff of champions. Even a high mark would often receive an, ‘It’s good, isn’t it?’
“And her hands, outside of class: They held sheet music in the Community Choir. They passed the peace and held the chalice at the Church of the Holy Spirit. They carried and caressed her canine companion, Nettie. They wrote postcards and letters to alumni in her orderly-yet-flamboyant cursive. They picked up the check for lunch when she visited New York City. They held tickets and programs for productions of her former students — no theater too small or too remote! — whose work she continued to support.
“The last time I saw Harlene was in March 2016,” he added. “Her hands sported perfectly manicured pink nails. She talked of the books she was reading; told me about a trip to Portugal and her remarkable journey home from it; described life in her beloved Arizona. There wasn’t enough time; there could never have been enough time. I don’t have to love that brutal reality even as I can love my good fortune to have known this human being, of a certain magnitude, who lived in the
form of action, not narrative.”
Marley’s influence extended far beyond the drama department and drama majors. Pegi Goodman’73 P’09,’18, a history major who is now a graphic artist based in Scarsdale, New York, recalled, “I always thought Harlene was ‘our’ professor — our group being the first class of women. But she wasn't a ‘mom’ to us: she was strong, opinionated, talented, compassionate and fun! And then there was that laugh, that wonderful laugh.
“I was lucky enough to be cast in Harlene’s first production — ‘Marat/Sade’ — in my freshman year. The remarkable camaraderie she engendered while directing that cast was phenomenal, at a level I never experienced again in the Hill Theater.
“Working as Harlene’s costume producer for ‘The Country Wife’ was a seminal moment in my Kenyon experience. She threw me the responsibility — I had never produced or sewn for a show with so many costumes, and of the complicated Restoration period. But her trust in my ability to get the job done engendered in me a can-do attitude that I carry with me to this day.”
‘Everything clear? Now go away!’
At Marley’s request, there will be no services. Following cremation, her remains will be interred in Good Hope Cemetery, in her hometown of Helena, Oklahoma, in the company of her parents and other family members.
Writing about her early days in Gambier for an article published in a 1994 issue of the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin celebrating 25 years of women at Kenyon, Marley produced a stream-of-consciousness account. “I didn’t feel much like the new school marm bringing couth to an uncouth frontier. I simply took a better job in a more congenial atmosphere at a higher salary than the one I had before. Hovering in the background of this picture are all the women who worked at Kenyon throughout its history.” She concluded with, “Bob Dylan said that nostalgia is death.”
Perhaps, but it can also be a salve. Marley’s ghost — a different one, with apologies to Charles Dickens — scowls.
In his citation for Marley’s honorary doctorate from Kenyon, Turgeon recalled her signature closing words to every class: “Everything clear? Now go away!” He closed that citation with words that could not be more apt in the wake of her final exit: “Now we recognize, wistfully, that the time has come for us to say thanks and brava, and to let you be the one who goes away.”
The College is planning an event to recognize Marley’s contribution to the Kenyon community, and details will be announced as they become available. Memorial gifts may be made to the Kenyon Fund and Kenyon Parents Fund at gift.kenyon.edu
—Tom Stamp ’73