Blakney retires after 31 years as surrogate mom

Marlene Blakney with Coraline Badgett ’12. Never a fan of cameras, Blakney told her students they could take only one photo with her, for Commencement.

She only knew a little about North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics when her college friend Warren Basket, then director of residential life, suggested that she apply for a residence life opening. That was 1983. Today, Marlene Blakney is packing up her campus apartment and office and retiring from a long career in student life and housing. “I certainly didn’t intend to stay here for 31 years, but that’s how it turned out,” she says.

Blakney was, in many ways, perfect for the job of residence advisor, as the job was called then. The oldest daughter of five kids, she has a natural sense of responsibility and good judgment. She attended boarding school for the last two years of high school, so knew what it was like to live away from home at that age.

Residential life plays a critical role in students’ experience here, Blakney knows. “When you ask former students what they enjoyed best, most of them will say residence life more often than they mention classes,” she says. “They come here and think, ‘Wow I’ve hit the jackpot, there are a lot of people just like me.’” Most NCSSM students, she says, make friends that they will keep the rest of their lives.

As residence advisor, later student life instructor, and finally associate director of judicial affairs and housing, Blakney looked forward to each new year of students. She’d meet one-on-one with each student on her hall for trimester conferences. She held birthday parties and study breaks with Costco muffins and apple juice. And she worked to teach the teenagers about being fair, treating each other well, doing their share, and creating a welcoming space. “I wanted them to learn to think beyond themselves, that’s what growing up is about.”

“She doesn’t really, truly understand the impact that she’s had on this school,” says Joan Barber, who retired in 2014 as vice chancellor for student life after 28 years at NCSSM. “She was a parent to a hall of girls for 31 years, so think about how many young ladies she’s made an impact on. I was always impressed with her integrity. She was consistent year after year with the kids on her hall, and always kind — even after so many years. And those are two things she expected of her girls, integrity and kindness.”

“Parents always appreciated when their children were supervised by ‘Miss Marlene,’ as the students called her,” Barber says. “Knowing she would be their parent away from home gave them confidence to send their children here. Of course academics always come first, but parents wanted to know that we’d be treating their kids well.”

Blakney asked to bow out quietly in July, saving the news of her retirement until after Commencement and asking that the school not throw a party. That’s classic “Miss Marlene,” says Steve Warshaw, who has also just retired from his post as vice chancellor for academic programs. Warshaw worked the same three decades with Blakney.

“She has more of the ‘conscience of NCSSM’ than anyone else I know, always holding us to the highest standards,” Warshaw says. “Yet she is also incredibly modest, as evidenced by her strong desire not to receive any special recognition for her retirement after her many years of devoted service. Marlene has been a powerful force at NCSSM.  She lives by her values: integrity, accountability, and treating each student as an individual while at the same time holding each to the community’s rules. We have had many discussions after sitting through judicial hearings together. I owe her so much for her insights and knowledge of the ‘adolescent mind.’ She worked tirelessly on the many drafts of the various disciplinary policies, paying attention to every word, not letting any ambiguity or inconsistency slide by.”

The students kept her here, Blakney says. “I couldn’t have stayed here if the students weren’t good and easy to work with,” Blakney says. “They’re motivated, goal-oriented, willing to do the hard work, interested in learning, and they’re good people,” she says. “Yes, we have some students who test the limits, but I think it’s our responsibility, when they bump up against the rules, to remind them of their limits. Our goal is to get them prepared for college. They can make mistakes now and learn from them. In college, it’s between them and the school, not them, their parents, and the school.”

Plenty has changed over the years, especially technology. “We had one TV per SLI group, one phone per hall,” Blakney remembers. “Between 8:30 and 10 p.m., students couldn’t use the phone, watch TV, or do laundry — that time was supposed to be for studying. So from 10:30 to midnight there were 31 girls trying to share one telephone and one TV.  With computers and cell phones, all that has changed. Students aren’t missing out on much now.”

Blakney never forgot three comments her students made during her first year at NCSSM. One was from a senior who told her that she and her peers worked so hard because they wanted to prove that the experiment of NCSSM was worth the state’s investment. The second was from a dorm assistant, or “DA,” who told her she gave “new meaning to the word RA” because she insisted on everyone doing their housekeeping, cleaning their rooms, observing the in-room curfew, etc. These were new concepts, and tasks, for many students, but they helped the students develop a sense of responsibility and ownership of the school. Thirdly, another DA said to her, “‘Marlene, don’t let these people drive you crazy.’ I was stunned that a twelfth-grader would say something like that. It made me step back and realize that the students were not the only ones in the fish bowl, the residential staff was, too.” 

She is moving back this month to Winston-Salem, her hometown, to help her mother, who at 81 is “slowing down a bit.” Blakney might substitute teach, as she did before joining NCSSM. She’ll read a lot — “medical thrillers, police thrillers, courtroom thrillers.” She plans to take piano lessons on her electric piano. She’ll look for her own place to live, but chances are it will be a condo, not too different from her campus apartment.

“I used to have visions of living in a house, planting flowers and a vegetable garden. I’m too old for that stuff now,” she says with a laugh. She looks forward to having her own washer and dryer and a dishwasher. But having to cook for herself again? Not so much — even though she watches the Food Network avidly.

She still refuses to join Facebook, but she welcomes email: reach her at

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