In her graduation garb, Marlene Sokolow couldn’t stop smiling as she waited for Arcadia University’s commencement to begin.
Then she saw a man running toward her. He was looking for Section 136, her section. He was looking for her. “There was a mistake,” he told her.
“Oh, my God, what’s going on?” Sokolow thought earlier this month. “What kind of mistake? Was I not supposed to graduate?”
Sokolow, 74, had been waiting a long time for this moment — 31 years. She started her education at Arcadia in 1990, when it wasn’t even Arcadia. It was then known as Beaver College.
At the time, she was working as the executive assistant to Harold Katz, who owned the 76ers. She was on a first-name basis with star players of that era, including Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, and Maurice Cheeks. She was part of the organization when the team won its last NBA championship, in 1983. It was a dream job, she said.
But something was missing: that college degree.
“I value education tremendously,” said Sokolow, a Huntingdon Valley resident. “I felt like I needed to add this to my life to just round out my world.”
Born in Brooklyn, Sokolow moved to Philadelphia when she was a child and graduated from Northeast High School in 1964. At that time, a lot of women did not go to college. It wasn’t on her radar. She got married, had a son, then got divorced and moved back in with her parents. She took courses at a paralegal institute and started working for a title insurance company, then an attorney, then another. It was through one of those attorneys that she met Katz.
Katz, also the founder of Nutrisystem, wanted to start a legal department at the company and hired that attorney, Sokolow said. Katz told the attorney to bring Sokolow with him. Katz eventually asked her to become his executive assistant.
“It was a no-brainer,” she said. “It was like the pinnacle. I couldn’t go any higher.”
The hours were long, especially during playoffs. She often worked weekends and holidays. It was her job to make travel and hotel arrangements for Katz and arrange for his plane and pilots. She made sure he got to meetings on time, scheduled his interviews, answered his correspondence, and took dictation, helping with both Katz’s Nutrisystem and Sixers business. She worked for him before he bought the Sixers and after he sold them.
“He was very good to me,” Sokolow said. “He was so generous, kind, and protective.”
One of her favorite times was at the end of the season. Katz had each player visit his office, one at a time. Sokolow would walk them down a long hall and they would chat. At 5-foot-1, she barely came to their belt buckle, she said. She had to look up to talk to them.
“It was exciting when they won the championship,” she said, noting that she watched all the games during the season and through the playoffs. “I was so happy because I knew it made him happy.”
But with a young son and busy work schedule, the time didn’t seem right for college. So she waited until her son left for college — and then began her journey, taking a course or two each year. She started as a business major but then gravitated to English as she started writing children’s books.
Up until recently, Sokolow would go into the office of Jo Ann Weiner, an associate professor of English and chair of the department, with a piece of paper that looked as if she had been carrying it around for decades, listing the courses she needed to complete. One by one, Sokolow would check them off. She would wonder if her grandsons would get their degrees before she did, but they’re still in high school.
In recent years, Sokolow persisted through personal losses and medical challenges. She suffered a stroke in her eye and lost some vision, had pneumonia twice, and saw the death of her mother, father, and a nephew. Then there was the coronavirus pandemic. Sokolow credited her Arcadia professors with supporting her throughout.
“It was pretty astonishing to me that she just kept plugging away at this degree,” said Weiner, Sokolow’s adviser. “She’s a remarkable person.”
Sokolow still sees Katz. Four years ago, she flew to Florida for his 80th birthday party. Sometimes, she bumps into him in the Huntingdon Valley area. If it’s at a restaurant, he always picks up the tab, she said.
Reached by email Friday, Katz said Sokolow performed her job perfectly with a sense of humor and strong loyalty. She had just sent him a beautiful birthday note, he said. Even now, she never misses his birthday, his wife’s, or their anniversary even though it’s been 20 or more years since she worked for him.
“I’m so proud of her for graduating college,” he said. “And as far as the 76ers, I never miss a game on TV.”
Sokolow still watches the team, too. She’s hoping they win another championship. The team is in the playoffs with a 3-0 lead over the Washington Wizards in a best-of-seven series.
With degree in hand, her next goal is to get a children’s book published. She exercises twice a week at home with a personal trainer and wears a lot of Nike clothes. She loves its motto, “Just do it.”
“The only thing I regret in life is what I did not do,” she said.
And about that commencement day mistake?
Turns out, Sokolow had been given a black tassel rather than the gold one she deserved for graduating with honors. The man looking for her just wanted to rectify that. When she walked across the stage, that gold tassel swaying, she caught a glimpse of her professors jumping out of their seats and applauding. Her husband, Jerry, and her son, daughter-in-law, and niece were there cheering, too.
Sokolow just did it.