by Elizabeth Barton
At age 92, Marion Bennion Stevens’ memory is crystal clear and her wisdom is almost palpable. To boot, Stevens hardly seems her age. In modesty, she’d deny this assertion, saying her receiving the Life Science’s Distinguished Service Award is only because she’s one of the few people left from the early days of BYU’s Food Science and Nutrition department. “I don’t deserve it,” she laughs. “I’m just someone who has survived long enough.”
What Stevens won’t admit, however, is that this award has nothing to do with age and everything to do with contribution. Granted for outstanding service in one’s profession, community, church, nation, or at BYU, the award honors excellency in diverse spheres. To say Stevens is not excellent would be a lie. To say Stevens is deserving would be a gross understatement.
Though she may not fully realize it, Stevens has—through her courage, career, and leadership—helped pave the way for others to succeed in academia and beyond. In a world of few female professionals, Stevens felt no trepidation about not choosing to study home economics. “I didn’t feel isolated or different,” she remembers. “I just decided what I wanted to do and I did it.”
Born in Murray, Utah in 1925, Stevens was raised in the remote Utah town of Delta. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University in dietetics in 1947, Stevens left Utah for the first time for an internship in New York City at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Following her internship, she received a master’s degree in dietetics from Columbia University in 1949 before serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in what was then called the East Central States Mission from 1950 to 1952.
Upon returning from her mission, Stevens was hired at BYU by President Ernest L. Wilkinson as a faculty member in the former College of Family Living under one condition: that she earn a Ph.D. Stevens followed through and moved to Wisconsin, where she received her Ph.D. in food science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1956. Stevens worked as a professor in BYU’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition in the College of Biology and Agriculture (predecessor to the College of Life Sciences) from 1952 to 1977. During this time, she served as department chair from 1955 to 1960, and then again from 1962 to 1969. In addition to her work as a professor, Stevens was a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services for the U.S. Department of Defense from 1965 to 1968, and a delegate to the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health in 1969. In 1974, she was awarded the BYU Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Teaching Award.
Upon meeting her husband, Wayne, at age 50, Stevens left BYU and moved to El Paso, Texas where he was working. Despite having left the university, Stevens didn’t let her relationship with BYU wane. “I love working with the students at BYU,” she says. “That’s the best part of the whole job.” In order to continue helping BYU students succeed, Stevens set up the Beryl Hamilton Scholarship Fund in memory of her mother, who was one of the earliest female graduates of the University of Utah in 1920. Even now, as she and her husband have returned to Utah Valley, they continue to contribute to the scholarship fund.
When asked if she has a secret to aging well or simply to enjoying life, Stevens says it’s important to use our brains. “Have a positive attitude and do the best that you can.”