Marlys Edwards to Retire at Year’s End

Dean of Students and Residential Life Marlys Edwards’ retirement from Phillips Academy is just the opening of another chapter in a life full of surprises. She didn’t get a college degree until 1990. She’s worked in everything from retail to banking to house flipping. And she teared up in an interview with The Phillipian at the very mention of what she’ll miss about this school. Edwards is a mover. Her 18 years at Phillips Academy are the most time she’s spent in one place since her childhood in a small town in Minnesota. Now Edwards is leaving Andover. But just like Brooklyn and California and everywhere else she’s lived, she won’t forget Phillips Academy. Land of 1,000 Lakes Edwards was born in Mound, Minnesota, next to Lake Minnetonka. Mound used to be “borderline rural,” she says, but now it’s become a suburb of Minneapolis, 23 miles away. Edwards grew up in a house of seven kids, her mom usually at home and her dad working as a grower for a large nursery in Minneapolis. She would make the trek into Minneapolis occasionally, for shopping or the movies, but usually she was in Mound, “the forgotten third child” of three girls and four boys, she joked. Edwards’ parents only had an eighth-grade education. Even so, her dad “really is a mathematical genius,” she says. Her family still lives in Mound today. She graduated from Mound High School in 1963 and went to the University of Minnesota for about two years before marrying and leaving college. Then she worked to put her husband through college, which was “not untypical for my generation in Minnesota,” she says. Across America She and her husband, who worked for the textbook company McGraw-Hill, moved all over the country. She moved 14 times in 16 years, “back and forth and in the middle of the country,” from Los Angeles to Detroit to San Francisco and places in between. Edwards held down dozens of jobs, including a stint at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I’ve had more jobs than I can remember, because we moved back and forth across the country so many times,” she says. “Everything from retail to banking. I never waited tables, but I did just about everything else.” Most of her jobs were those of “toil,” she says, especially banking and retail. But “that’s when I learned I loved to work with people,” she says. “Working with people is an extremely important part of my job.” In the midst of the moves she had two kids: Sarah, born in Albany, New York, and Lucas, born in Brooklyn. “They did a lot of their growing up in California,” she says. Lucas is now 32 years old and a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Sarah is the head of the middle school at Brunswick Academy, a private school in Greenwich, Conn. with a stellar athletic program. She lives with her husband and three kids in Greenwich. Edwards sees her children and grandchildren often, driving to Boston or Connecticut or hosting them on campus. Edwards and her kids “have a lot of common interests,” she says. “Family is very important to us. We think of ourselves as a threesome.” New York City The family moved into a brownstone in Brooklyn in 1980, when Sarah was in fourth grade and Lucas was in kindergarten. Edwards stayed busy in New York: renovating her home, getting a bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College, working in the athletic department at a private school in Brooklyn and raising her kids. In 1986 she became the athletic director at that private school – Saint Ann’s, a “progressive” school founded in 1965. She first got a job there after working on physical education at a lower school in California and taking Phys. Ed. courses at the University of California at Berkeley. Edwards’ bachelor’s degree was in English, and the subject “was just a passion for me,” Edwards says. New York helped to incubate her literary interest. She became friends with a woman from Minnesota, Gail Wiese, whose daughter was about the same age as Sarah, Edwards’ daughter. “We would spend time together and talk about literature,” she says. She still visits Wiese occasionally on her trips to New York. “I had every intention of living [in New York] forever,” she says. The Victorian-style brownstone she bought had to be gutted room-by-room, and the renovation project became Edwards’ third child. She loved “giving life to a house that…was built in 1850 and lost its glamour,” she says. “The first thing that we did was the children’s bedrooms.” The renovations were sometimes stressful. For six months, while she re-did the kitchen, she cooked on an electric frying pan and washed dishes in the bathtub. She was her own general contractor for the 10 years of renovations. Now she rents the house in Brooklyn and, for next year, she’s looking for a new fixer-upper project in Newburyport, Mass. Andover, Massachusetts Her son Lucas came to Phillips Academy as a Junior, and Edwards came to live in Will Hall as a house counselor to 44 boys a year later. She started a master’s degree at Middlebury a year later, during the summer. After arriving in Andover, “I knew immediately I wanted to become involved in residential education,” she says. Headmaster Don McNemar appointed her as cluster dean of West Quad South in 1994, right before Barbara Chase became Head of School. Edwards now lives in Samaritan House, a small girls’ dorm at the corner of School and Main Streets. This year, five Junior girls and one proctor live in the dorm; last year, five new Uppers roomed there. Another of Edwards’ jobs here is “Clerk of the Course” for the track team. She collects records of track meets and that’s it, she says, but she enjoys it. Edwards nabbed the last year of a great retirement deal from Phillips Academy: 80 percent of base salary for the next two years. And, she says, “I knew that I had one career ahead of me before I [finally] retire.” “I don’t know what it is yet,” she says, but her next career might “dip into education a little bit.” The Dean of Students Office Edwards has been on the Commons renovations planning committee for six years, and Uncommons is “spectacular,” she says. “This gives us an idea of what community [is], sitting down and breaking bread together.” As West Quad South cluster dean, she used to send a bag of candy to every student in her cluster with perfect attendance and write personal letters to kids on the honor roll. “I think it’s so important that the Dean of Students is recognized as the dean of all students, not just the ones who get in trouble,” she says. “It’s difficult…but it is something that I worked hard at to some success.” Of all the jobs she’s held, Edwards’ favorite is this one. “This job is really pretty significant, especially when you’ve established credibility so students trust you,” she says. In the Dean of Students office, Edwards sits in her chair and peers over her trendy, black-rimmed glasses at the computer screen. Her office is usually quiet, tucked away in the corner of George Washington Hall’s basement. She has two windows: one looks out at foot level to the concrete stairs leading up to Samuel Phillips Hall, and the other faces the side of GW. Neither view is particularly picturesque. So Edwards compensates with art and family photos scattered across the walls – sun-drenched pictures of her kids when they lived in California, grandbaby snapshots, photos of her children and father, a panorama of a lake in Maine, a black and white image of the Flatiron Building in New York. A Turkish rug, purchased from Don Barry, Instructor in Mathematics, lies on the floor. Occasionally classical music drifts in from the stereo in the waiting area, or voices of students talking to Kennan Daniel, her administrative assistant and the adviser to Pot Pourri. Edwards puts on “Flow of Grace,” an album by Krishna Das. It sounds vaguely like fingernails scratching on a chalkboard, according to Vimala Mohammed, one of the administrative assistants in the Dean of Students office. Edwards laughs. She’s close to her staff, and they banter and trade jokes and recipes during breaks between the many meetings Edwards attends. Bulfinch Hall, and Memories of Brooklyn So why English? “I’m the kind of person who takes on something that’s challenging just for the challenge of it,” Edwards says. “I had a pretty lousy English background in high school. I wanted to do something that would pique my interest.” “I love reading. I love the words,” she says. “I’m always saying, ‘Listen to those words.’” In the classroom, she’s focused on prompting glimmers of understanding from her students. “It’s to get those moments because I think that when you can read something or write something that captures that emotion, that’s really powerful,” she says. In Edwards’ house in New York, a previous owner had painted black over the mahogany of a four-floor banister and its spindles. She stripped it back to the wood to “give it life again,” she says. “That’s what I like about flipping houses. That’s also what I like about poetry.” “When I’m teaching it and I’ve got this passion for it and I can see the look in a student’s eyes that they get it…I love it.” Someday, she says, she’ll write to get published. “There is something to be written, and I just don’t know what it is,” she says. “It can’t right now because my brain is so cluttered.” Antiques and Artifacts Edwards is in charge of the antiques and artifacts of Phillips Academy – to “keep track of what’s out there,” as she puts it. Mostly the job entails getting furniture and moving it around for faculty members, especially cluster deans. Another task is “taking things that have been neglected that belong to the Academy, getting them repaired” and putting them where they’re needed, she says. Phillips Academy used to keep antiques in Evans Hall, the old science building, and there Edwards found a “hand-carved American eagle,” as she called it, waving a “Live Free or Die” banner. This eagle was once mounted over the door to Abbot Hall, where the Brace Center is now. It was covered in years of pigeon droppings when staff took it down during renovations of Abbot. The eagle was forgotten in storage, until Edwards got it cleaned up and affixed it to the wall of her living room. Now, she says, she’s looking for a good home for the eagle – somewhere meaningful to display a keepsake of the past, renewed for today. Dormitories Edwards says that her legacy is in the residential system. “I absolutely believed that the dorms needed to look like home, and not institutional,” she says. “This summer and the next summer we’ll finish Stearns and Stevens” and a few smaller dorms on the list for renovations. Her goal has been to create dorms “where kids can go back and call their home,” Edwards says. “I’ve tried really hard to support the house counselors,” she says, noting the intensity of being a “triple threat,” or teaching, coaching and house counseling all at once. What’s left for the next Dean of Students, she says, is “how we as a school discuss values…how you bring that conversation to the table.” “It’s certainly not just the Dean of Students’ job, it’s the whole administration,” she says. “We never really talk about what we do or what we believe, but I think those conversations have to happen.” There’s been talk in the administration about having students, faculty and other community members all read a common book, she says, or creating themes for each year. “Part of the problem is that…[with] so many mottos and slogans…it’s hard to say ‘We are this,’” she says. “I think [administrators now] are focusing more on ‘We are this.’” Her first theme, if she were to pick, would be “something related to the environment,” she says. “I think we’re facing a crisis…[and should] focus on the direction [of] change we need to make.” A Compost Bin Edwards composts, throwing her egg shells and banana peels and soggy dead leaves into a bin outside her door. For five years, she’s been piling organic matter in, but it decomposes so fast that she still has almost a foot of space on top. Her plan is to sprinkle this soil – all those banana peels from five years ago – across her garden before she leaves this summer. Leaving Andover Of all the molds she’s broken, leaving Phillips Academy might be the biggest – moving out of Samaritan House for a new residence and yet another new career. “I will start crying if I start talking about how much I’ll miss the kids,” she says. And sure enough, she tears up. Her favorite saying, from the Shakers, is “Proceed and the way opens.” She says, “I can’t imagine [the way] won’t have something to do with young people…kids who are successful, kids who fail.” “I wake up in the morning and I have no home and no job and no foot in the future and it’s scary,” Edwards says. “But then I get up and think about the opportunities that are ahead of me, and I’m ecstatic.”