Breast cancer diagnosis barely slowed down Rhodes College's first female president
Rhodes College President Marjorie Hass was ushered in as the school's 20th president during a ceremony last month. Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal
On a December morning in Memphis, a petite, Jewish philosophy professor from Illinois stood in front of a crowd of students, faculty and community members at Rhodes College and introduced herself.
She was bubbly and warm, scholarly and grounded. The college presidential search process, she joked, was like an arranged marriage with the third-party search firm in the middle.
"We call that a 'Yenta' in my tradition, who says, 'Oh, I have a nice college for you, it will be wonderful,'" she said.
Her new community needed no further introduction. Marjorie Hass — the 20th person, first woman and first Jew chosen to lead Rhodes College — was home.
The months that followed that late 2016 announcement were supposed to be exhilarating. Hass would finish out the year at her previous job as president of Austin College, move to Memphis at the end of June and begin her duties at Rhodes in July.
It was supposed to be an exciting time, full of possibility and enthusiasm.
She wasn't supposed to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Not in February, just two months after accepting the job at Rhodes, just months before her son's wedding and her family's move to a new city.
Her first days in Memphis should have been unpacking and sightseeing, not acquainting herself with the medical community and bracing herself for two more chemotherapy treatments.
It wasn't the beginning, the true giving of herself to her new job and new community, she had planned.
And yet, to the surprise of no one who knows her, she never missed a beat.
In the eight months since she took over the job, she's announced two major initiatives, traveled the country meeting with alumni and donors, advocated for higher education issues in Washington, D.C., and met with faculty and students in nearly every department within her college.
"I still look back and I think, how did I do that?" Hass, 52, said from her office at Rhodes last month, almost exactly a year since her diagnosis. "I don’t know where I found that strength."
She found it in her family, her faith and the rallying of a Memphis community that barely knew her.
A lifelong learner
Hass describes her family as having the "quintessential American immigrant story."
Her grandparents fled Russia in the early 1900s amid violence toward Jews. They arrived penniless but welcomed by the United States, her grandfather building a business and sending his sons to medical school.
Her parents met at the University of Illinois through the on-campus Jewish student organization, Hillel.
The oldest of three girls, Hass was a dancer — ballet, modern and jazz, mostly — and a self-proclaimed bookworm. Her mother was a dancer and a teacher, and later in life, earned her doctorate alongside her eldest daughter.
For Hass, it was a lesson in the idea of lifelong learning, and a symbol of the change in opportunities for women.
"It would have been difficult for her to be seen as a good mother and also work while her children were younger," Hass said. "So I had more opportunities than she did at that age, but then I got to see her take advantage of those opportunities later in life."
With a psychoanalyst for a father and a psychologist for a mother, "I certainly grew up in a household in which ideas were really important," she said.
That thirst for big ideas, and a foot injury that ended her thought of a dance career, brought her to philosophy.
"I fell in love with that way of thinking and really loved that you could ask really big-picture questions," Hass said. "In philosophy, thinking never stops, you never have to say, 'Well that’s just the way it is, or that’s the standard of the discipline.' You always have the opportunity to continue to question, to let your mind be free to wander, and I really liked that."
Philosophy turns to leadership — and magic
It was at the University of Illinois she found her counterpart in Lawrence Hass, a fellow philosopher.
"She had so much energy and she was so interested in ideas, and she was also beautiful," her now-husband of 31 years said.
They both became tenured professors at Muhlenberg College, raising a son, Cameron, and daughter, Jessica, and assumed they'd stay in those jobs until they retired. But Marjorie Hass began to climb the administrative ladder, eventually becoming provost at Muhlenberg.
Larry Hass began a career shift of his own, as his philosophy work brought him to the world of close-up magic. He's now a retired professor and a professional sleight-of-hand magician, doing performances, teaching other magicians and giving speeches.
"Both of us encourage each other to pursue our hearts desire," he said. "This is especially important when it comes to our work."
Her work took them to Austin College, near Dallas, where she was president for eight years before the head of the search team at Rhodes asked Hass if she'd be interested in the job.
As the interview process progressed, Hass made a clandestine visit into Memphis for a tour with the college's board chairman, Cary Fowler.
"I called my husband from the airport and I said, 'I really think you would love this city,'" Hass said.
'How will I live with it?'
That December day in 2016, dozens of students and faculty, so many of them women thrilled at the news of their college's first female president, waited their turn to shake Hass' hand and welcome her to Memphis.
Hass spoke about moving Rhodes from "strength to strength," building on the leadership of her predecessor, the beloved President Bill Troutt.
She had no idea her own strength would soon be tested.
Two months later, Hass was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.
"That came as a complete shock, because I had no history of that in my family, I wasn’t expecting that," Hass said. "I’m young for breast cancer."
She coped through conversations with God and her family, and briefly hiding in bed under the covers. That lasted about 24 hours before she was bored.
"For me the question was not, will I die from breast cancer," Hass said. "It was, how will I live with it? How will I live today, and how will I live tomorrow?
"And I did find reserves that I didn’t know I had. I still find them."
Showing her humanity
Hass notified the Rhodes trustees quickly of her diagnosis.
"She received so much support from the Rhodes community, because they knew what a challenging and difficult thing this would be to get this kind of diagnosis," Larry Hass said.
She finished two chemotherapy treatments in Texas and had two more cycles to do in Memphis. Her new staff arranged her schedule around the times she felt the most well.
"Chemotherapy is a really horrible treatment, and it saps your energy, it saps in many ways your creativity," Hass said. "So there were many days in the small picture where I thought, I’m not sure I can do what I need to do this week."
But she never questioned whether she could do the job. She could still be a leader, just by showing her humanity.
"The virtue that was really most important for me was not courage, it was authenticity," she said. "How do I continue to be myself, how do I continue to live out my values, how do I continue to express myself in my work and in my relationships even though this unexpected and terrible thing is happening."
In a 2015 speech at a magician's conference put on by her husband and his then-business partner, Hass spoke about whether magic as an art form could be enhanced by a performer showing his or her true vulnerabilities.
Everyone, she said, is in their own way "walking wounded." That's even more true for her now.
"I think every person carries with them some kernel of pain, some kernel of adversity that they’ve overcome," Hass said. "And in my relationships with people, I try to be sensitive to that."
That applies to every student who comes to Rhodes, a college that attracts students from across the country and the world.
"Our goal is to educate them, but we also need to be aware that they’re learning life skills here," Hass said. "They’re learning values here. They’re learning to live in a community here. So our college community is a great opportunity to practice that skill of understanding other people."
First woman to hold the job
Amy Jasperson, an associate professor and head of the political science department at Rhodes, said Hass is genuinely interested in listening to what people have to say.
"She has a natural ability to connect with people," Jasperson said. "That’s something that you immediately notice about her."
Many members of Rhodes' female faculty were themselves the first women to hold their jobs, Jasperson said, creating an extra appreciation for Hass being the first female president.
In Hass, she said, they see a woman who is in a leadership position and wants to "hold the door open even more widely for people to come after her."
Hass was also the first female president of Austin College. She credits the generation of women before her for paving the way, but knows she's also a role model.
"I know that it matters a lot to our alumnae who write to me and call me and tell me how proud and excited they are to see a woman leading their college," Hass said. "And I know it matters a lot to our students who also reach out to me and say it’s inspiring to them."
Energy and enthusiasm is contagious
In her inaugural address on an icy Saturday morning in January, Hass announced two significant initiatives.
The first was the formation of the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center, an investment in community partnerships focusing on urban education, the arts and social change, neighborhood and community development, and youth empowerment and justice.
The second was a new master's in urban education program that will produce 100 teachers annually.
Jasperson said given Hass' diagnosis at the beginning of her Rhodes tenure, her ability to launch those initiatives was impressive.
"She just has this energy and enthusiasm about the possibilities for Rhodes moving forward, that they’re contagious," Jasperson said.
Now cancer-free, Hass said she's looking forward to immersing herself further into Memphis, finding ways to contribute to the city once she truly has her bearings after a whirlwind year. She's passionate about access to quality education and, more recently, mammograms.
"I remind her to pace herself, because she works eight days a week and she loves to go wherever she is needed, wherever she is requested to recognize people or do the work of Rhodes College," Larry Hass said.
She's made the president's office her own with a wooden pedestal she uses as a standing desk that was built by a friend to her exact height — once she takes off her high heels. A mezuzah, a small metal fixture with Hebrew writing, hangs crooked on the door frame, a Jewish tradition symbolizing the protection of the room.
A local artist's work depicting Memphis landmarks accompanies a set of building blocks on a counter, in case a visitor brings a child.
The bells on the small college's campus toll on the hour just above her office.
"I hit the jackpot here," she said.