When I moved to New York City in 1995, all I could hear was:
But in my lyrics, Kenny Schneck was the young lady who fell from a star, not falling very far, and Montvale, New Jersey was the name of her star.
Though my hometown was less than 30 miles from Washington Square Park, I had landed in my technicolor Oz when I stepped foot in New York City. Sure, I was minimally excited for the college career in front of me. But mostly, I was excited to be gay.
I was not out at Pascack Hills High School. I knew the attraction to men was there, but other than some words exchanged in a Prodigy chatroom, there was no outlet to express my true identity. I told no one. I vehemently denied the allegations. I went to prom with a girl (thank you, Mandy Feiler!). And I did my best to hide.
But New York City represented endless queer possibilities. The only hitch in my plan for my gay social domination was my university housing assignment. NYU had placed me in a triple. In my mind, a triple meant triple the square footage. Turns out, no. I was crammed into a tiny space with DJ Zuriel and Farmer Ben. Nice enough guys, but the former blasted godawful techno from the bathroom where he was cooking up…um…substances. And the latter opined morning, noon, and night on every form of agricultural innovation introduced since Eli Whitney.
My RA was less than helpful, so I trudged down to the Residence Life office for assistance. I was told that our Hall Manager had unexpectedly quit, so I was ushered into the presence of Marijo Russell O’Grady, a spritely, grinning housing coordinator of some sort who was working way under her pay-grade to meet with me. I had a prepared bulleted list of roommate aggrievements, but Marijo Russell O’Grady wouldn’t let me list them. She cut right in.
“How are you?” she asked.
“You mean my roommate situation?” I responded.
“No,” she said gently with a smile. “How are you doing?”
“I guess I’m fine?” I proffered.
“Just fine?” she followed.
“I mean, I’m ok,” I nervously said.
And then she did that thing where she just smiled and paused. I knew it was a technique. But damnit, it worked! My discomfort with silence kicked in, and the verbal floodgates sluiced open.
“Well, I’m super overwhelmed here because I’m not really into my classes and my parents want me to go home for the High Holidays and I’m not sure I want to go and I haven’t really made any friends here yet but I really want to go out and meet new people and particularly gay people because I’m gay and…oh! Whoa.”
Just like that, I had just come out to an adult for the first time in my life.
In my head, it was an earth-shattering, destiny-altering, fear-inducing moment and I immediately froze. Marijo Russell O’Grady deftly navigated my choppy waters, picking up on the sudden widening of my eyes at my unplanned admission even as she put me right at ease. She didn’t pathologize me as if there were something wrong. She didn’t condescend to me as if I were broken. She just validated me by incorporating my identity into our conversation in a way that was somehow exactly what my scared 18-year-old self needed.
Thus began my 25-year history with Marijo Russell O’Grady.
She pulled me into a leadership role in residence hall student government. She advocated for my candidacy to be a Resident Assistant after I tanked the job interview. After two years of being an RA, I knew that my only career goal was to provide for others what she provided for me. So she walked me through the graduate school application process. I was quite devastated when she left NYU for another school in my 2nd year of grad school. But we were far from done.
Marijo Russell O’Grady helped me land my first job after grad school and, when that wasn’t the right fit, she later counseled me through securing a new position. My career kept moving forward, and she was always there. I would randomly stop by her office in downtown Manhattan where she was the Dean of Students at Pace University, I would call her more than a few times when I couldn’t puzzle through a situation, and nobody gave me a bigger hug when I saw her at NASPA conferences. Even when I myself had become a Dean of Students, I never saw her as a colleague despite her repeated insistence that we were. She was my mentor. She was my idol. She was my aspiration.
The other day, while mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post from Marijo Russell O’Grady that someone with her same name had just died after an aggressive battle with breast cancer. I immediately figured it was an aunt after whom she was named. And then I looked at the pictures in the post and they were all of my Marijo Russell O’Grady. And I was confused. And I read the post again. And I was still confused. And then I gasped aloud. Understanding suddenly dawned: my Marijo Russell O’Grady had died after an aggressive battle with breast cancer.
One week later, I’m still in shock. There is no one in my life who has had as much influence on my career as Marijo Russell O’Grady. I literally would not be sitting in Ohio as a professor of leadership in higher education if not for her. Everything I do professionally is modeled after what she showed me how to do.
But the career influence too easily overshadows that moment that started it all when I came out for the first time to an adult and it went exactly as it was supposed to go.
There are countless videos out there of heartwarming moments when petrified LGBTQ+ youth come out to a parent and hugs and support come rushing forth. But often those videos are preceded by a coming out story to someone outside the immediate family, a non-relative who scaffolds and enables the fortitude and courage for us to live in our authenticity. “Gay Kid Comes Out to Housing Coordinator” doesn’t make for a viral YouTube video title, but it was that very conversation that laid the groundwork for the rest of my life.
I hope Marijo Russell O’Grady knew how much she meant to me. I think she did, even as all I want to do is tell her right this very second. If you have a Marijo Russell O’Grady in your life, call them. E-mail them. Send them some snail mail. Maybe you can thank your Marijo even if I can’t thank mine in person.
But that won’t stop me from trying.
So, thank you, Marijo. You taught me what it means to be an ally. You taught me what it means to be a compassionate professional. And, yes, you taught me that thing where you smile and pause. I use it all the time on students who fell from a star and land in my office. They all know it’s a technique too. But damnit, it works!