A Fond Farewell

MaryEllen-smEVERY SUMMER, MARY Ellen Robertson would start pushing the Salt Lake Symposium boulder up the mountain one more time, gathering volunteers and Sunstone staff together in the office for a week of intense nose-to-the-grindstone, pizza-fueled, caffeine-soaked program creation.

First, there were the words.

So. Many. Words.

Gather a hundred Sunstone sessions together and you will find yourself caught in a jungle of abstracts teeming with paragraphs (at least three), semicolons (reproducing while we weren’t watching), and academese (discursive, anyone?).

Not to mention the bios—which could sometimes run longer than the abstracts themselves. How did people cram so much into their lives? And did they really want to be remembered for all of it?

Mary Ellen’s platoon of workers would bend over the latest program printouts like monks, painstakingly whipping the mass of verbiage into something resembling order. Every word was likely read thirty times before it ever found its way into print. The volunteers would read it, Carol would read it, Ellen would read it, Mike would read it, Holly would read it, Stephen would read it, Mary Ellen would read it. And then we’d all read it again. Because there were always errors to unmask, always superfluous commas to obliterate, always split infinitives to efficiently reunite.

But it wasn’t just the words that were the problem. It was getting them. Mary Ellen spent half her time chasing down our beloved presenters, encouraging (and occasionally threatening) them to send in their novella-ish bios or their Foucault-ian abstracts. Friends, if ever you participate in a conference, take pity on the poor soul who is organizing it. Send her what she needs promptly. Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my conference organizers . . .

And, of course, creating the program was just the prequel to the actual work: making the symposium (deep breath) happen. It was a colossal undertaking that only a bishopric consisting of Rosie the Riveter, Hillary Clinton, and Xena the Warrior Princess could have pulled off. Or Mary Ellen.

You might think that being Sunstone’s symposium director and executive director means that you spend every day talking with interesting people about weird Mormon stuff, but you would be wrong. It mostly means minding the budget, paying the bills, and keeping up on taxes. It means keeping mail permits current, restocking the envelopes, and being first in line for any criticism that comes along. The job is not for the weak of heart or the lax of organization.

Sadly, in late 2014, Mary Ellen decided to move on to pastures less sunny and stony, but hopefully greener. Her devotion to Sunstone paved the way for the many successes we have met since her departure. As we head into a bright future, we honor Mary Ellen as one of the vital founders of the Sunstone feast.


  1. CAS says:

    I was so sorry to hear Mary Ellen had left, she did such a wonderful job with the symposia all those years. I don’t know how anyone handles all the details and moving parts for even one symposium, let alone with such grace. It’s really too bad you (people in charge) couldn’t convince her to stay!

    Mary Ellen, you will be missed. Thank you for your many years of devotion and tireless effort. And best wishes in your next endeavor.

  2. Wendy says:

    So sorry to see MaryEllen go, especially after all the reports that last year’s Sunstone was the BEST EVER. This is a huge loss for Sunstone, but I wish MaryEllen well.

  3. Sue E. says:

    Last summer, I attended Sunstone for the first time in 20 years. It was due to what I knew of Mary Ellen, along with her dedication and work ethic. As someone who chairs another annual Conference (although not close to as complicated as Sunstone), I know what it takes to make all the pieces come together when they should! Her resignation is Sunstone’s loss, for sure!

  4. Maya says:

    Mary Ellen spun straw into gold, as she worked with few resources and accommodated changes of venue and of speakers with calm competence. Under her leadership, multiple deadlines and details looked easy. It will be hard to find someone with equivalent commitment and skills.

  5. Vickie Eastman says:

    I watched and admired Mary Ellen’s superb work in putting together the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium for many years, through some very challenging times. This event is at the heart of Mormon intellectual and social discussion and she made the magic happen year after year. She will be difficult to replace and sorely missed. Thank you, Mary Ellen!

  6. Parker says:

    Mary Ellen ran a good ship. It was tight enough to float the rough waters, yet not overly bureaucratic in the way many conferences are. I will miss the help and support that I, and I think all presenters received from her. I will also miss those quick hallway chats between sessions when I ran into her. Someone down the road, or maybe already, will have a great asset when they employ her.

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