Serving, leading and listening

Marilee Melvin sits in her office on the second floor of Blanchard as the trees out­side begin to bloom and the sun shines in through the window. From the painting of Mary Blanchard that she retrieved from Wheaton’s ar­chives, to the walls of pictures and awards that she has col­lected over the years, Melvin, Wheaton’s executive assistant to the president, has a passion for Wheaton that is evident as she speaks about her years of service and experience with sincere humility.

The Record sat down with Melvin to discuss her time as a Wheaton student, her expe­rience serving in Washington, D.C. and her return back to campus as a leader at Whea­ton.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WR: You are a graduate of the class of 1972. What brought you to Wheaton?

MM: My mom was a Wheatie, as was my dad, so I knew about Wheaton grow­ing up. Our family went to a church that was just full of Wheaton grads and the one and only pulpit that Billy Graham ever had, in Western Springs. It was a great mis­sion-sending church, so a lot of missionaries that were go­ing out were Wheaton grads, so it’s always been in my mind and heart. It was a part of my heritage.

Another little piece of my personal history is that my mother… after graduation… came back and served as a sec­retary in the alumni office. In June of 1946, after the war was over, my dad, who had been in the Navy, came back to cam­pus for the alumni weekend, and went up to the office, and my mom was sitting at the front desk. She said, “Do you have tickets to the banquet tonight?” and he said, “Well, I’ll only go if you come with me.” They were engaged in two weeks, and then they were married that homecoming weekend.

WR: What drew you to a major in philosophy?

MM: It was my intro to phi­losophy course my freshman year with Dr. Holmes. He had sort of a quasi-British accent, and (was a) very, very thought­ful and caring professor, and challenged me. I thought, “If I could take this professor, then I would be a different person — I would know what I want to know.” Philosophy wasn’t particularly easy for me — I could have done English lit­erature, which was probably more along my trajectory, but … I’m really glad I took phi­losophy because it helped me in so many ways, profession­ally, later.

WR: Upon graduating, you earned a Master’s degree in philosophy at the Univer­sity of Chicago. Later on, you served 12 years in the private and public sectors of Wash­ington, D.C. Could you ex­plain some of the things that you did?

MM: After Wheaton, working my way through grad school, I worked in a meat packing plant on the south side of Chicago, in the Chi­cago Stockyards district, in Bridgeport, where the origi­nal Mayor Daley lived. It was kind of a collision of worlds — living in suburban Oak Brook with my family, taking classes at the U of Chicago in Hyde Park with leading world philosophers and working in a meat packing plant in the Bridgeport neighborhood. So these three worlds were collid­ing, and it was very rich.

Colonel Watson, a retired army officer I met at a confer­ence, invited me to come to Washington (D.C.) to help him set up an institute study­ing political terrorism, funded by the Rand Corporation — that’s what got me out there, in mid ’76. My role was just ad­ministrative, setting up an of­fice, doing research and help­ing him with conferences.

Later I met the leader of the National Legal Center for the Public Interest, who hired me almost immediately to help him write a book. This was during Jimmy Carter’s administration, and in those three years at the public inter­est law center, just blocks from the White House, I worked with federal judges, corporate general counsel, law students, clerks. We did national confer­ences on the role of the judi­ciary in a democratic society.

I got to learn how Wash­ington worked and met a lot of people I would later work with in both the Carter and the Reagan administrations, and I saw how God just lit­erally opens doors for us and puts us places. We need to be alert and proactive about our futures, but we don’t need to sweat it. We don’t need to get ourselves tied in a knot about ‘exactly what is my path go­ing to be,’ because I could have never dreamed I would do all that.

I left the Legal Center to do some freelance writing and realized I couldn’t support my­self in that way. I joined the typing pool, the Presidential Correspondence unit, in the Jimmy Carter White House the week our hostages were taken in Iran — November ’79. The Presidential Corre­spondence Unit at the White House is a civil service role, a typing and secretary pool. Still, employees in that pool have to have a full field investigation. I had so much fun that last year of the Carter administra­tion, being sent on detail to a plethora of offices around the White House. I was in the Domestic Policy office for most of the time, and Jewish Affairs and offices in the West Wing and the old executive office building.

I was there in the transition between the presidents (Cart­er and Reagan). It was a huge learning experience to see how governments transition peace­fully, and the changes from one set of ideas to another, even manifesting physically on the compound.

I met Ed Meese, who was President Reagan’s Counsel­lor. He was a Christian, and seemed to be different than the other political people I met. I told my boss in the typ­ing pool, “If an opening on Mr. Meese’s staff comes up, I’d like to be sent there.” The week after inauguration, I was sent to Mr. Meese’s office to fill in for a secretarial role, and after one week, probably because I already knew many of the peo­ple through working with the Legal Center, I was hired as a full-time political appointee, and then I grew with the job.

From April 1981 to ’83, I handled Mr. Meese’s travel. And then, in ’83, I became his executive assistant, and at that point, I was able to travel with Mr. Meese and the President to assist them on some trips on Air Force One.

So I think that I was pre­pared to serve at the White House from what I had done before at the Legal Center and the Institute in these ways: I wasn’t terrified and over-awed by ideas; I realized that I had something to offer in a service role with excellence; and most of all I could see that God was really in it and I could trust him for opening doors or shut­ting doors, and I just had to show up. Of course I could not know that the preparation at the White House, working for not one, but two U.S. presidents, was ac­tually preparing me to later serve three Wheaton College presidents. You nev­er know this when you’re back there, but now, at this stage, looking back, I’m seeing, “Wow, some people end their ca­reers at the White House like it’s the capstone.” God used the White House in my life to prepare me to serve here at Wheaton. Isn’t that fun? I didn’t pull the strings — I just showed up.

WR: In 1988, two months after receiving the Justice Department’s “Award for Sustained Excellence,” you came back to Wheaton and served as vice president for Alumni Relations. What led you back to Wheaton?

MM: In mid-’87, I was at a family wedding — my sis­ter married Ruth Bamford (previous Wheaton dean of women)’s second cousin. Ruth Bamford was on the search committee, looking for a new vice president for alumni rela­tions, which was a new role.

Formerly, the alumni as­sociation had been a separate legal entity from the college, and the new vice president’s main job was to bring it un­der college governance and make it all smooth. Ruth said, “Why don’t you try out for the job?” and I said, “I don’t think so.” But by that fall, I decided to apply. Wheaton had never had a woman VP before, but I thought, “Marilee, just ap­ply. You probably won’t get picked.” I didn’t want to stay in Washington forever as a polit­ical person, I wanted to be near academia, and my dad was liv­ing nearby Wheaton and was grieving the recent death of my mother. I came back in May of 1986 to go with my dad to his 45th class reunion here at Wheaton; I was so im­pressed by what I saw — I had been away from Wheaton for 15 years by that time. I was so moved by the relationships of these Wheaton graduates that I wrote an essay about what I saw and how it moved me and sent it in to the Wheaton alumni magazine.

The search committee saw that article, and they decided that I had the heart that they were looking for. I was sur­prised that they even went after me, but they interviewed me, and Dr. Chase invited me to come, and I said, “You know, I would like to, but I can’t come for five months, I have to finish in Washington,” and he said, “We’ll wait.” So, I finally started on May 2, 1988. Two weeks later, Phil and Lisa Ryken graduated from Whea­ton, and I marched with the other administrators at their commencement. At the time, I knew who Dr. Lee Ryken was — he started as a professor the year I started as a freshman, but I had no idea what God was going to do in Phil and Lisa’s lives.

WR: Now you serve as the executive assistant to the president. Could you explain some of your duties, and what an average day on the job looks like for you?

MM: I worked for 18 years as the vice president, and then Dr. Litfin needed an executive assistant; it was a new admin­istrative role for the president’s office; the president’s office has gotten more complex over the years. The president has two very fine, premier administra­tive assistants sitting right out­side his office who handle his schedule and greeting guests, but he needed someone to work on special projects, to be a part of the cabinet, to provide extra administrative support. I really loved being a VP, and I loved my role with alumni, but again, it became clear to me, the nudge from God, “Marilee, I haven’t wasted teaching you to serve leadership and being a leader yourself. I want you to do this.” I felt that, and so I said, “Ok,” and it was a big faith move.

Some people thought I was ruining my career as a VP; I saw it as a promotion, be­cause, frankly, being in the limelight isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and the president re­ally needed me. I always have felt, “Don’t go anywhere unless you’re called, but really prepare yourself in order to be called.” I think that’s a principle for life. And so, it was a surprise at the time, but I did it, and I’m glad I did it.

I moved to the president’s office in January ’06, and I would say that the key to my role now, as a leader at Whea­ton, is to be like John the Bap­tist — his attitude about the one he served was, “he must increase, and I must decrease.” Like any human being, I have a desire to know and be known. When you are a visible leader, you can get intoxicated with seeing your name in print, and those kinds of things, though, are not worth life. Next to what God is doing in the world, my little ego satisfaction is ashes. But what I do for him, in his name, will endure. So I see it as a tremendous gift to me, to give me a new place of service where I can pour everything I learned as a leader, every­thing I learned being next to leaders, into giving the leader now the very best service that I can, whatever he needs. And because he’s a just man, and a godly man, I can trust him. If he were not a just man who pursued God, I couldn’t serve him because I would not trust what he was doing.

There is no average day — it is whatever Dr. Ryken needs me to do that day. I’m part of his cabinet, so I attend all the cabinet meetings; I take notes and assist him with follow-up.

I serve him by being a mem­ber of many of his task forces and counsels; the Whea­ton Evangelism group, the President’s Advisory counsel on HIV/AIDS, the Diver­sity counsel, and the Sexual Identity counsel. I attend all the board meetings with the trustees, the board of visitors and the relationships there, I research and draft correspon­dence and awards and ac­commodations, I put together special events, like the upcom­ing trustee retreat in Wash­ington this June, or the Latino Leadership Summit last May, I assist by advancing foreign travel, like his (Ryken’s) trip to Indonesia in September 2012 and his recent trip to Korea. I coordinate his monthly strate­gic priorities update with lead­ers all around campus, I host special visitors, I served on the chaplain’s search committee.

It’s not about Marilee, it’s not about my name, it’s about the goal, getting it done, and getting it done in harmony so that other people feel good about their jobs.

WR: What keeps you mo­tivated? Where do you draw inspiration from?

MM: From walking with Je­sus. This has been a classroom of service, of learning how to pick up my cross daily and fol­low him. It motivates me, too, that I can be a part of the mis­sion of the college, in prepar­ing leaders of the church for tomorrow. It motivates me that my presence here, with the students stopping in or working on a committee, can help lighten a load or push the mission forward. As long as I have breath — as long as I’m alive on this earth, I want to be serving, ultimate­ly, the kingdom. It’s not about me and how good I am. It’s about responding to Jesus’ love. This job, since 1988, has been a challenge for me to really examine: “Am I really a Christ follower, and what does that mean?” You could be anywhere in the world and have that same motiva­tion.

WR: Do you have any life advice for the Wheaton Col­lege student body?

MM: Use your college days to discern who you really are in Christ. Don’t rush ahead of him but learn to wait on him. That doesn’t mean be inactive or apathetic about your future. Sure, reach out, get the facts, reflect on them, but don’t pre­sume you know where he will take you or what he will do with your gifts and history. The one who made you, who called you into being cares a lot more about your future than you could — so wait on him, and it will be an adventure that will take your breath away.

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