Take it from Me with Marylen Mann

Advocate for Active Aging.  Artistically Passionate. A Study in Perseverance.

By Diane Kline

Marylen Mann     photo by Justin Barr

Do not be fooled by Marylen Mann’s petite stature—she is indubitably a mighty force.

As the founder of OASIS, she had a simple focus: to help aging people lead better lives. Through her determination and perseverance, the nonprofit has grown to national prominence, with offices in 50 cities encouraging and supporting hundreds of thousands of seniors to stay active, healthy and socially engaged.

Mann’s commitment, as well as her intellect and creativity, have impacted many other areas of the community, especially in the arts as a board member for the Contemporary Art Museum, Craft Alliance Center of Art + Design and the St. Louis Symphony.

Her endless energy and positive attitude is more enviable given the challenges she has faced. At age 43, she lost her husband; later, she lost her 45-year-old son to brain cancer. After being widowed for 19 years, she married Frank Jacobs (founder of Falcon Products), whom she had dated in college. He wanted to go steady then, but they broke up after she turned him down—only to rekindle their courtship years later! Mann is dedicated to her friends and family, especially to her six grandchildren.

Pull your socks up!

When things get tough, pull your socks up! I was only 43 years old when my husband died, leaving me with two sons to raise by myself. I’m not one to cry, “Poor me!” No one can feel your pain, and you don’t want it to define you. You need to get beyond yourself and out of your problems.

Surround yourself with mentors.

In any venture, you have to be realistic. It’s not easy. Passion can get you started, but you need mentors who believe in you. They give you moral support. And just as important, they have to be honest with you. Everybody’s got something to say, even if you don’t want to hear it a second time.

Education held the greatest value in my family.

Terribly, terribly shy, I grew up with books. My favorite was “The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” by Richard Haliburton. My parents couldn’t go to college, but they made it a priority for me and my sister. My undergraduate degree was in philosophy, but my father encouraged me to be practical and get a master’s degree in education. It turned out to be the love of my life.

Just solve one problem at a time.

When I started OASIS, I had no idea what I was doing. When a problem came up, we would solve it and move on to the next one. You find courage to keep going when you see your work matters to people. You see progress and it keeps you going.

Adventure! Adventure!

My attitude at Oasis was: “We’re going to make this an adventure,” so we made work fun. I was an idea person and managed the organization for 25 years. We’d grown so much that I knew it was time to give the reins to someone with a different kind of administrative experience. I strongly believe that a founder shouldn’t go on forever. Fortunately, I could still come up with ideas and stay involved.

Show up and show you care.

We have no idea what we’re going to have to face in life. When something happens to a friend, I bring homemade soup or my famous apple sauce. There’s no one right way to support somebody who is hurting. Just be willing to listen.  Ask, “Can I bring you food?” Tell them, “I need to do something for you.”

I worship creativity.

Unfortunately, I have no artistic ability so I’m envious of people with talent. I admire that somebody can create a piece of art and express their unique vision so others can see it and enjoy it. It’s why I’ve been very involved in arts and culture.

I’m never in style, I’m never out of style.

I dress in clothes that are artistic, pieces that make me smile or that I just find interesting. Whether they are in style or not. I never thought I was pretty as a young girl; and once you carry an image of yourself, you can never get over it. We never really see ourselves as others do.