Memories of Marilyn
Marilyn had directness about her, a freshness that was perennial. Her clean scrubbed persona started with a cap of straw colored hair bunched up in a casual twist. Her clear blue eyes were always slightly bemused. Tall and slim, Marilyn had an athlete’s ease to her movement and a colt like need for wide open spaces. She spent every second she could outdoors—on a horse, on a ski slope, hiking in the Adirondacks, working on the farm. Soccer was a passion — coaching and watching her children master teamwork on the field were great joys to her.
One of the things I remember well about Marilyn was her hands. They were large and flexible, spider like in their range of motion. They symbolized her capable nature, her ability to hold and guide so many things—horses, stethoscopes, soccer balls, ski poles, saucepans and of course, 3 children and a husband.
Marilyn put those hands to work by becoming a veterinarian. She trained at Cornell from 1974 to 1978. The seventies were the first time in history that women entered this career in significant numbers. Many in that “first wave” felt the need to trumpet women’s liberation as their mission. Not Marilyn. Marilyn simply had a deep love for horses, science and medicine. Veterinary school was the logical place to combine the three. Without much fuss she studied the art and the science of the profession. When she was done she went to work as a horse doctor in the Hudson River Valley. Women were a rarity in equine practice in 1978, so Marilyn’s arrival created a stir. But her straight forward, matter of fact competence soon won the hearts of the Hudson Valley horse people. Before long no one thought twice when the tall gal with hair bundled in an upswept twist arrived to treat the colic, deliver the foal or sew up the wound. They just knew they had a darn good veterinarian who would solve the problem no matter how bad the weather or how late the hour.
Marilyn was BELOVED by her clients. Most called her “Marilyn”, not “Dr. Schmidt”—with her, respect centered around her deep and personal relationships, not hierarchy. Marilyn really knew horses, knew first hand what great athletes they can be and the thousands of little things that affect performance. Her study of acupuncture and chiropractic gave her the ability to fine tune her patients for the show ring. Her understanding of western veterinary medicine gave her the resources to treat big threats to life or limb. Many people are skilled in either the western or the eastern arms of medicine. Very few master both. Marilyn was one of those very few.
Marilyn and Rick married 24 years ago. What a partnership they formed! At first blush, Marilyn and Rick seemed like opposites—she, somewhat austere and reserved, he, a hail fellow well met, a story teller, the life of the party. It was sort of an “I Love Lucy” in reverse with Rick being the comedian and Marilyn the straight one who often had reason to roll her eyes. But the two shared so much—a deep commitment to excellence in practice, a love of the outdoors, an abiding passion for horses, a simple, strong faith and a great joy in family. When they married they set out on a path that would embrace all these things. Together, Rick and Marilyn bought and retooled the great green place called OakenCroft. They made it their home and built their large veterinary clinic and breeding farm on its acres. They trained many young veterinarians and technicians and educated countless horseowners. They gave back to the profession through their committee work for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Their three wonderful kids, Evan, Craig and Taryn, are a testimony to their partnership—no matter how busy things got, Rick and Marilyn kept the family priorities on top. A myriad of practice responsibilities ground to a halt when it was time for scout camp, soccer practice, swim team or ski trips. Somehow, the work still got done.
Two weeks ago I was at a business meeting, looking at the computer next to me. It was Rick Lesser’s. The screen scene showed Rick, Marilyn, and their young family, back around 1995. Taryn was a baby in Marilyn’s arms. Craig and Evan were young boys clowning for the camera. The pastures and fences of Oakencroft framed the background. I looked closely at the Schmidt Lesser progeny next to their parents. First, I saw bits of Rick in the big grins on the little boys’ faces. Then I saw elements of Marilyn—the tilt of their heads, the direct look of their eyes, the slight hooding of their lids. The more I looked the more of Marilyn I saw. Let us all remember that just as Marilyn’s spirit still shines through in that decade old photo, she is with us in her own way today. She will peek at us behind Evan and Craig’s sunny smiles. We may see her in a twist of Taryn’s hair. She is at OakenCroft, in the trees and the fences and the gardens and the barns. She will be in the foaling stalls of next year’s crop of babies. She will soar over jumps with the horses she worked on. Her fresh scrubbed light will forever glow in Rick’s heart. And today, in this church where she worshipped, Marilyn is in all our hearts. The essence of the people, the animals and the land she loved will always be embraced in the memory of her generous, capable hands, assuring us that all the lives she touched will unfold as nature intended.
Composed and read by Ann Dwyer at Marilyn’s Funeral Mass
A memorial fund has been started at Cornell in Marilyn's name. Each year an Equine Veterinary Student that is balancing family issues while in school will be the beneficiary of this fund. You may contribute by sending a donation to:
Marilyn I Schmidt Memorial Fund
College of Veternay Medicine
S2 005 Schurman Hall
Ithaca NY 14853