On Aug. 25, the Concordia College community received an email saying Michelle Marko had died. The associate professor of biology joined Concordia in the fall of 2008 and has touched the hearts and minds of many Concordia students and colleagues since then.
On Sep. 2, professor Mark Krejci gave the homily at Marko’s funeral, but he had some help writing it. At the beginning of August, Krejci and Marko met in her backyard. She told him that the first two times cancer came, she saw it as a medical problem to be solved scientifically – something to be solved with research and her doctor’s advice. This third time her cancer came, it was something spiritual. She came to Krejci because he was both her colleague at Concordia and a deacon in the Catholic Church.
In Krejci’s homily, he focused on the phrase “Blessed are the meek.” This quote comes from the same Bible readings that Marko and her husband used at their wedding. In the original Greek, meek means one who is both ethical and humble; someone who does the right thing but isn’t boastful about it.
The tribute wall on Marko’s online obituary offers a glimpse into the meek person Marko was. She was someone who accomplished her lifelong dream of seeing a koala in Australia, someone who would wear a wacky shirt to class every Wednesday and encourage her colleagues to do the same, someone who showed up one day with her hair dyed pink.
In a tribute to Marko, Gerald Van Amburg, wrote, “She was an accomplished scientist, fine teacher and great friend to many.” Amburg is the retired head of the biology department and worked alongside Marko for many years.
Joseph Whittaker, associate professor of biology, reminisced about the pranks he and Marko would play on each other, like changing each other’s thermostats during meetings. Marko was an expert at balancing her personal and professional life.
“Dr. Marko knew when it was time to have fun,” Whittaker said.
Whittaker and Marko led a group of students to East Africa during May. There, she and Whittaker had the chance to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and explore the surrounding area. Whittaker told me about an adventure in a nearby town where he and Marko went through quite a bit of trouble to get some banana beer because it was a local favorite. Whittaker remarked that the beer “was the color of a rotten banana” and he was apprehensive at first. Shortly after getting this beverage, Marko remembered that she was allergic to bananas. Whittaker recalls “it was difficult to get back [to their camp],” but he and Marko had a good laugh about it on the way.
During the summer, when she wasn’t in East Africa, Marko would take students to a research station at Long Lake. They would take a pontoon onto the lake for different research tasks, and that pontoon became Marko’s floating classroom. She empowered her students to become experts in what they were researching. Some even had the opportunity to present their findings to water specialists with the Department of Natural Resources. Marko could have easily taken the limelight and presented these findings herself, but she cared so much more about the learning her students did than any accolade she could receive.
Peyton Lehman and Bridget Beynon were two students who took her Evolution and Diversity class in the fall of 2018. They both told me about an in-class activity called the ‘Mating Game’ where they would pair up with different classmates and see which traits their offspring would evolve to have. This odd activity taught them about the process of evolution and the role it plays in diversity. Through this and similar quirky class activities, Marko showed that she cared about the learning of her students, not just lecturing them for 100 minutes at a time.
Beynon told me about a time she and some friends walked to the Moorhead Dairy Queen and happened to see Marko there with one of her daughters.
“Me and her talked for a bit, just, normally,” said Beynon.
This run-in wasn’t an uncomfortable situation like seeing a professor in the grocery store, Beynon said it felt like a conversation between two friends. Beynon remarked how Marko even talked her into buying a curly shake: a combination of a whole shake with a whole sundae on top.
“I normally would not have gotten it, but she just somehow convinced me to get it,” said Beynon.
Be it inside the classroom, on a pontoon, or even a random encounter at Dairy Queen, Marko touched the lives of everyone she met. She was someone who taught with passion and wanted her students to love her classes as much as she did, and Marko’s legacy of enthusiastic teaching will live on at Concordia for years to come.
To read more about Marko and see tributes from friends and family, visit https://www.korsmofuneralservice.com/obituaries/Michelle-Marko/#!/TributeWall.