Marianne Dickerson

Marianne Dickerson

ST. JOSEPH – Marianne Dickerson, a record-setting athlete whose achievements on the track were matched by a tender heart and generous spirit, died Wednesday (Oct. 14, 2015) in Phoenix, Ariz. She was 54.

A silver-medal marathon winner in the 1983 Helsinki Games with an MBA from Harvard, Marianne had shelves full of medals and closets filled with trophies. But she knew these things, in themselves, were nothing compared to the love and caring relationships that she cultivated with family members and friends, with classmates and colleagues, even with strangers, homeless people and others in need of a warm embrace or a helping hand.

Her lifelong drive to get the most out of herself found expression in everything she did, and nowhere more than on the athletic field.

Tipping the scales at barely a hundred pounds, Marianne drew on intelligence, grit and a ferocious work ethic to triumph over competitors - male and female - throughout her athletic career. More than one schoolboy runner learned the hard way not to underestimate the wiry bantam who would soon be leaving him in the dust.

A pioneer in women's sports in the early years of Title IX, Marianne was "leaning in" before the term was invented. She played sandlot tackle football, an oversized Green Bay Packers helmet plopped on her head. She integrated a boy's Little League team, flummoxing rival pitchers with her left-handed batting stance and shoulder-length hair. Later, at St. Joseph-Ogden High School, she trained with male cross-country and track athletes, who came to regard her as one of their own.

And yet, Marianne was destined to stand out from the pack. In 1978, her senior year, she became her school's first state champion, setting a record in the 880-yard dash that still stands. At the University of Illinois, she was a two-time All American in track and cross-country. She later developed into a standout triathlete, consistently finishing near the top in several Iron Man competitions.

The pinnacle of her athletic conquests came in 1983 at the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, competing in the women's marathon, an event at which she was relatively inexperienced and unknown. Matched against some of the world's elite female distance runners, Marianne hung with the leaders, as astonished TV commentators wondered aloud: Who is this kid? Entering the race's final stretch inside Helsinki's stadium, Marianne sprinted past a flagging Russian competitor into second place, capturing the silver medal, as spectators roared.

A true "scholar-athlete," Marianne used the scholarships and other opportunities granted by her athletic talent to excel in the classroom. Gifted in math and science, she earned a bachelor's in general engineering from the UI and a master's in industrial engineering from the University of Michigan, before gaining a Harvard business degree.

As a management consultant, she fused her analytical abilities with a plainspoken Midwestern personal style that earned her colleagues' respect and trust. Marianne was at ease giving advice in the CEO's suite, but what she enjoyed most was being out in the field with rank-and-file workers, solving problems.

Marianne was born Nov. 14, 1960, in Urbana, the first daughter of Harlan W. Dickerson and Mary E. "Betsy" Dickerson, and the fraternal twin of her brother, Barry. Her younger sister, Marla, arrived 18 months later.

It was a mischievous trio, with Marianne often the ringleader. Among the many tales surrounding the Dickerson siblings, one of the most enduring involves Marianne careening through an Indiana laundromat in an out-of-control laundry cart. Unlike the shop's shattered plate-glass window, she emerged unscathed.

Marianne's work ethic was honed in the fields and back roads of rural Illinois. Growing up, she delivered newspapers, walked beans, detassled corn and pruned trees. She became a familiar sight to area farmers during training runs, logging mile after mile on country roads in any weather.

Focused and driven on the track and in the workplace, Marianne was playful at home, boisterous at Illini games and always ready to cut loose at a backyard cookout or a local watering hole. She adored her nieces, Mary Evans, Claire and Caroline, who also knew her as the Easter Bunny, Minnie Mouse or in some other seasonal get-up that Marianne cooked up to make them smile.

Marianne was a loyal and generous friend, always the first to pick up a check, buck up a companion, cheer on a teammate or do a favor for practically anyone. Her big-heartedness embraced many people. She served as a Special Olympics volunteer, spent time with seniors in nursing homes and "adopted" several homeless people on the streets of Chicago, Santa Monica, San Francisco and elsewhere.

Her circle of friends was rich and wide, including lifelong hometown pals, running buddies, neighbors and workmates from the many places she called home throughout her life.

For the last 12 years, she shared her life with Liz Giometti, a fellow athlete and adventurer. They bonded over their mutual love of the outdoors, hiking, biking and their needy, but irresistibly cute Bichon Frise dogs.

Marianne is also survived by her beloved family: mother Betsy; brother Barry and his wife Elizabeth; their daughters Mary Evans, Claire and Caroline; and sister Marla and her husband Reed Johnson.

Memorial gifts may be made to the University of Illinois Foundation at 1305 W. Green St., Urbana, IL 61801. The funds will be used to establish an endowed student-athlete scholarship in Marianne's name.

Contributions may also be made to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to support charitable work in the local community. Checks can be mailed to St. Patrick's Church, 708 W. Main St., Urbana, IL 61801; or Holy Cross Catholic Church, 405 W. Clark St., Champaign, IL 61820.

Those of us who were blessed to know and love Marianne are consoled in our time of grief by our memories of her goofy humor, her empathy, her enduring loyalty, her courage and truthfulness, her unrelenting high standards and her kind and forgiving spirit.

May God watch over her always.

A funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday Oct. 20, 2015, at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 405 W. Clark St., Champaign, with Father Joseph Hogan officating. Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday at Freese Funeral Home, 302 E. Grand Ave., St. Joseph.