EVERY 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.