Marlene Owens Rankin, AM '78
Vice President and Managing Director, The Ruth and Jesse Owens Scholars Foundation at The Ohio State University
“I always credited my father - he encouraged me to get an advanced degree and financed my education. He thought it would be good, that it would allow me to do what I wanted to do.”
Marlene Owens Rankin’s father was U.S. track and field legend Jesse Owens. Born in Cleveland, Ms. Rankin moved with her family to Detroit and then on to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood when she was ten years old. She returned to the Buckeye State for college, and attended her father’s alma mater, The Ohio State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social welfare.
Ms. Rankin returned to Chicago and joined the Cook County Department of Public Aid as a social worker in the Children’s Division, dealing with foster care placement and adoption. She left that role when her son Stuart was born and remained at home with him for three years. She rejoined the work force as a social service planner at the Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity, where she developed programs in social services, addressing the issues of people living in identified poverty areas. When the CCUO merged with Model Cities, she moved to the Governor’s Office of Human Resources. There, she had the opportunity to address some of the same issues, but on a larger scale. However, she grew frustrated with working in government and longed to turn her attention to clinical work. She knew the time had come to pursue a master’s.
From her mid-teens, the University of Chicago had loomed large in her life. Ms. Rankin recalls, “I always felt SSA was the best school. I considered Loyola, Jane Addams, etc., but the University of Chicago was the more prestigious program, and I wanted to focus on clinical work. I enrolled in SSA and was accepted. It was very challenging - it’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done! But it was so rewarding; it gave me so much confidence and I learned a great deal. I also learned a lot about myself - about my strengths and weaknesses. I was an older student (at 37), and I had a child, husband, and a house. You have to be single-minded and say ’this is going to be my life right now.’ I was so pleased with myself when I graduated.”
During her time at SSA, Ms. Rankin fondly recalls her husband’s unwavering support and how she appreciated Dodie Norton (Dolores G. Norton, Ph.D.), who was so helpful and encouraging. Her field placement experiences also stand out. “My first placement was at a public school, Nettlehorst Elementary. My second year placement was at Billings Hospital in the Out-Patient Adult Psychiatry Department.
After graduation, she joined United Charities, which has since become Metropolitan Family Services. “It was like an extension of SSA - the President and most of the staff were SSA grads. The emphasis there was on continuing your education, developing skills, and of course, excellent performance.”
After many years in her original role, Ms. Rankin moved into administration as the Assistant Director of Human Resources. She credits her SSA education with giving her “the skills to move on to other things. After I had achieved my goal to do clinical work, life’s reality said I needed to move on.”
Ms. Rankin proved to have a gift for human resources and was tapped to serve as the first Director of Human Resources for the Museum of Science and Industry, creating the museum’s human resources program from scratch. In 1991, she left to join the Jesse Owens Foundation.
After his death in 1980, Ms. Rankin, her mother, sisters, and friends of the family formed the Jesse Owens Foundation to commemorate his exceptional spirit. The foundation’s goal is to help youths realize their potential, providing them with support for education, athletic achievement, and development in the arts.
Ms. Rankin speaks with obvious pride about the foundation’s accomplishments. “We’ve had more than 400 kids go through our program, but when you consider the youth service organizations we help, the number is much larger than that! Many of the kids were the first generation to go to college. We stayed in touch, we were a place for them to call, get help, etc.”
Beyond her work on behalf of the foundation, Ms. Rankin has been involved in numerous civic organizations over the years. She has been a member of SSA’s Visiting Committee, the chairman of The Ohio State University Annual Fund from 1990 to 1993, and a member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors for The Ohio State University from 1985 to 1990. She is also a sustaining board member of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club. In 1992, Today’s Chicago Woman named her one of the 100 Women Making a Difference. She has been awarded the “Annual Orchid Award” from the Top Ladies of Distinction, received the “Phenomenal Woman Award for Philanthropy” from the Black Women’s Expo in 2002 and 2003, and was inducted into The History Makers in the Civic Makers category. Ms. Rankin currently serves on the Know Your Chicago Committee of the University of Chicago Graham School of General Studies.
When asked how SSA has remained a preeminent institution, Ms. Rankin says “It’s constantly re-examining itself, remaining relevant without being trendy. It remains solid in the basics. SSA gave me the tools to do the kind of work that I’ve done and to be successful at it.”