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Cathy Marek, BA ’71
Photo courtesy of Cathy Marek

As a senior at an all-girls’ Catholic high school in Memphis, Tenn., Cathy (Broden) Marek thought she’d be getting more of the same when she applied to then-Webster College in 1966. But in 1967, Webster President Jacqueline Grennan Wexler facilitated the transfer of Webster’s ownership to a lay board of directors, effectively making the school legally secular. The following year, Webster went fully coeducational without restrictions on how many classes male students could take.

The Webster Marek applied to was not the Webster Marek got. And that turned out to be a very beneficial twist.

“Webster was such a dynamic and changing place at the time. It was really exciting,” Marek said. “I feel like that was the message at Webster to us as students — it challenged us to look at how we could change, see the world, incorporate changes in our life and be open to everything.”

The theme of change continued into Marek’s sophomore year, as she decided to switch majors. A self-proclaimed “theater nerd,” Marek came to Webster with the intent of majoring in the topic. She had fallen in love with acting at the age of 11 when she made her first of many trips to Broadway. Though Marek thoroughly enjoyed her freshman year in Webster’s Conservatory — including being taught by Peter Sargent, current dean of the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts — she realized that lifestyle wasn’t for her.

Marek switched from studying theater to French, in part because she’d get to study abroad in France and Switzerland her junior year. She graduated from Webster with a bachelor’s in modern language (French) and a minor in social science in 1971. Marek later added a master’s degree in education from Saint Louis University in 1975.

“It was such a great experience at Webster,” Marek said. “I thought I was headed to be an actress of the world. But I realize looking back that the nurturing, close relationships we built as students — as well as with our professors — was just ideal for a person like me coming out of my background. And just really I think of Webster as a place where students have always been allowed to design what works for them and put it into action in their education. Then they’ve got experience having done what they really want to do in their career while they’re still in school. Webster got me on my path.”

Though Marek started her career as a junior-high French teacher in Webster Groves, she quickly discovered her passion was counseling, particularly at the middle-school level. She spent the last 15 years of her career as a middle-school guidance counselor within the Rockwood School District at LaSalle Springs in Wildwood, Mo., before retiring in 2008. Prior to that, Marek worked as an elementary-school counselor for two years and a high-school counselor for five years. She was named the Rockwood Middle School Counselor of the Year in 2007 and the St. Louis Suburban Counselor of the Year in 2008.

“It was such a great experience at Webster. I thought I was headed to be an actress of the world. But I realize looking back that the nurturing, close relationships we built as students — as well as with our professors — was just ideal for a person like me coming out of my background.
— Cathy Marek

“School counseling is really one of the most important jobs in the school,” Marek said. “A lot of people don’t recognize that we’re kind of the linkage person grade to grade, as well as someone a kid gets to know over time. And hopefully, they’ll come talk to us about things that will prevent problems that could’ve mushroomed really fast. I loved it. I really did. … I’d also like to commend Webster for initiating the school counseling program in the graduate counseling/education department beginning this fall. It has always seemed to me to be a natural for Webster.”

Aside from a three-year period where she lived in New Jersey in the early 1980s, Marek has remained in St. Louis since she first attended Webster in 1967. Marek and her husband, Don, have two children — Angie and David — as well as two grandchildren. Since her retirement, Marek has been able to travel the world with Don, with trips to Russia, Easter Island, Australia, New Zealand and China as some of the headliners.

Additionally, Marek has generously donated her time and resources to multiple organizations, including Webster. She has been a member of Webster’s College of Arts & Sciences Advisory Board since 2013, a position she said has “just continued my love of Webster in every way.” She and Don have been frequent donors to Webster student scholarship funds. Marek said she loves meeting the scholarship recipients every year and seeing “what dynamic, great kids they are.”

“Donating is a way to reconnect with people you remember and see the school you loved. It’s very rewarding to me,” Marek said. “If you think about it financially, where else is it better to spend money than helping young people succeed and have a positive experience like your own?”

Cathy Marek, BA ’71
Photo copyright Webster University

Recently, Marek donated funds to Browning Hall, the Interdisciplinary Science Building — specifically for equipment to outfit a test kitchen where French cuisine will be concocted. Marek said she is ecstatic to see the completed facility — which will open for classes this fall — and is going to attend the grand opening in October.

“It’s amazing. It’s so beautiful. It looks like absolutely the latest and the greatest,” Marek said. “It’s funny — as a graduate who’s seen Webster go through different physical changes, it’s always fun to see something in a spot that had nothing, or you’d never expect to have a building there. It’s exciting. I’ve seen that old basement science area. I couldn’t blame anybody for not wanting to study science there. Webster is just so in the forefront. They may as well look like it to draw students in.”

Beyond Webster, Marek has spent the last eight years volunteering for Springboard, a St. Louis-based organization that provides arts-in-education programs to economically disadvantaged schools and community venues. She has served as a coach for Springboard’s WiseWrite program, where fifth-grade students develop plays to be performed during a festival at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Marek also volunteered as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) with Voices for Children for three years, where she assisted abused and neglected children. Though she is under no obligation to do so, Marek said she’s chosen to spend her time and finances aiding others because she loves the feeling of helping people in a significant manner.

“How do you spend time when you’re retired in a way that’s really meaningful and can help others?” Marek said. “Webster was such a positive experience for me. It took me from a little Memphis girl to ready to go out and be self-sufficient. Webster challenged me to be that change agent in helping others. I’d like to challenge others to do the same, because it’s rewarding. It is really a joy to still be involved with Webster.”