Sunday, August 24, 1997
The 'Mousie' that roared

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Marlene Holwadel has brain cancer, but that is not the point.

She was in her office at Withrow High School in Hyde Park, working late one night (not unusual) when she dropped a pencil. She picked up the pencil, but then couldn't get her arm to pick up the phone. Maybe, she thought, I'm having a stroke.

No such luck.

Anyway, now she has to have radiation therapy every day. ''It takes two minutes,'' she says. ''I can leave here at 1:45, get zapped, stop at McDonald's for a grilled chicken deluxe sandwich and be back at school by 2:30.''

Anybody who knows Marlene - ''Mousie'' to her friends - understands that she is in the middle of a project and once that happens, nothing gets in her way. Not motorcycle gangs. Not politicians. Certainly not cancer.

She dragged a garden hose, mulch and clumps of plantings to Fountain Square in the early '70s. ''The place was a mess. The city said it was the parks' responsibility, and the parks said they weren't going to do it anymore. So we asked if we raised the money could we plant the flower beds, and they said, 'Be our guests.'''

And, as a city, we have been letting this remarkable woman be our guest ever since.

A beer with the gang

In the early '80s, she saved the pavilion and more or less silenced the roar of motorcycles in Ault Park. ''She sat down with the gang and had a beer,'' says Bob McKeever, who graduated from Withrow with Marlene in 1950 and volunteers with her at the school's alumni office.

She talks a lot, but she listens even better. To teachers, to the kids.

Pink lockers, 77 years old. Litter in the halls. Demoralizing.

''It's like at Ault Park,'' Marlene says. ''People act like things look. Cleaning up is not everything. But it's a start.''

I wonder how Principal Dennis Matthews likes having a bunch of well-intentioned amateurs patrolling the halls. I notice he is sucking a lemon. Literally.

''I might be getting a cold,'' he explains, something he can ill afford the week before school starts. ''I want more parents and neighbors here. We are asking a lot of the community. They need to see what we are up against. And we need their ideas.''

Marlene Holwadel wants more than ideas. She keeps a formidable box of 3-by-5 file cards in her desk.

Money and time

Probably every fund-raising organization in town would love to borrow that box. Somehow, in just two years, she has raised $400,000 for the school. The last big chunk came from the Junior League, which gave $20,000 to the school's new College and Career Counseling Center.

College. Career. This is not information a lot of kids are going to get anyplace else. And the two existing counselors for 1,700 students have their hands full.

''We need money, and we need people - about 100 more,'' she says.

''When she wants something, she's not above playing the cancer card,'' Bob says.

And she laughs, this lovely woman with her brave silver wig and her undiminished passion for good works.

Because of this woman, there are concerts in the pavilion at Ault Park, families strolling through the rose gardens. Withrow's tower is beautiful - and tuck-pointed. The clock works. The hallways are clean. The 99 trees in the ''swale'' - the low swoop of yard along Madison Road - are pruned.

Because of this woman, a kid named Jeff with wild hair and lots of dramatic jewelry believes that he just might get a life at Withrow. Somebody else will go to college, another will get a job.

These things will matter long after any of us - including Mousie Holwadel, who has started measuring her time on the fingers of one hand - is around.

And that, really, is the point.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8493. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.