An Interview with Marlene F. Byrne

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.


Marlene Byrne: I grew up in Brillion, a small town in Wisconsin. St. Mary’s, our parish, served as our family’s community – school, religion and social. The families and friends we connected with were an integral part of our life. I remember the whole community gathering in the spring to help farmers pick stones in the fields in preparation of planting. The people cared deeply about each other and never hesitated to pitch in.


Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be the CEO of a corporation. How do you do this job while being a follower of Christ in your business endeavors?


Marlene Byrne: The basic principles that we all learned in Catholic grammar school apply to our work lives – no matter what our title. Treat others with respect. Share with others. Have compassion for all. Do what is right over what is easy. When you make a mistake (and you will), own up to it and say your sorry. Offer forgiveness to others.


The only real difference when you are a leader of an organization is that you have the added responsibility to be an example for people to follow. I put equity into making sure Celtic has a culture of doing good beyond the work we do in the business for clients.


My father knew our family was blessed and often said: “You can’t go through life with two catcher’s mitts on. You must throw something back.” I have always felt a responsibility to contribute to the greater good in the world in order to help others.


Dr. Knight: Tell me about how you helped an orphan from NPH El Salvador?


Marlene Byrne: I was on the Board for NPH USA, an organization that raises funds to support orphanages in Latin America and Caribbean. I was asked if my family could host a young man who needed treatment at Shriners Hospital in Chicago. Juan came from NPH El Salvador, along with a companion boy named Sam, for what was supposed to be ongoing trips for 2 years but turned into 3½ years.


As a family, we experienced so much. A deep understanding of cultural differences. An appreciation for our new extended family. Even a tolerance for all the disruption the boys caused in our home. They became part of our routine and we formed deep, lifelong bonds with both of them.


I often think back to the first night the boys arrived. I laid awake with a gut-wrenching regret for having said yes to hosting the boys. I was scared and worried about what their presence would do to my two young children.

Ultimately, the boys gave us so much more than we gave them. Juan’s treatment was successful. Sam ended up learning English and we decided to help him attend college in Chicago. Over the years, Sam became a permanent part of our family and is now working and married in Chicago. The entire experience inspired me to write the book, “Music Has Legs” about the boys. Opening up to something outside of our comfort zone brought us more joy than we ever imagined.


Dr. Knight: Tell me one of your favorite stories from that time.


Marlene Byrne: During one of the boy’s visits, my daughter Maggie was making the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Her assignment was to bring in a photo of herself as a young child to school. As she paged through the mounds of family photographs, Sam perched on the stool next to her. They were laughing at her funny poses when she commented, “I wish I could see your baby photos.”


Sam became quiet and went on to explain that there were no photos of him as a child. He had been thrown in the trash by his mother as an infant and found wrapped in blanket by a man rummaging through the local dump. He explained his journey to living with the man, and then being left at NPH, exhibiting no anger or regret.

I was doing dishes at the sink when Sam told that story and it was a shocking revelation. It has stayed with me constantly as a reminder of just how lucky I am and how powerful forgiveness can be. There were many times when Sam and Juan taught us to appreciate the little things like family photos and togetherness.


Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being a mother of an orphan from NPH USA?


Marlene Byrne: Brian and I didn’t work for the Peace Corps. We didn’t seek to adopt a foreign child. We certainly didn’t have any idea what blessings would come from saying YES to NPH. Our life changed unexpectedly by just opening up to something when asked. The boys changed us forever and made our family so much richer than before.


I believe there are opportunities for everyone to say YES. To reach out to a neighbor who might be homebound. To help a family struggling in your parish. To volunteer for a charity raising money.


No matter where you give back, you will reap rewards far beyond anything expected.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?


Marlene Byrne: Yes. My talents are in writing, marketing, finance and management. But my experience includes working for leaders in a wide variety of companies and industries. It has allowed me to see the inside of c-suites and observe many leadership styles. Great leaders have a humility to bring people together and move them to a common goal. I am hopeful this experience contributes to the success of the Board of Advisors for University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.


Dr. Knight: What do you think are some of the challenges of the future Church?

Marlene Byrne: I believe the greatest challenge for the Catholic Church is creating engagement with young people. The future of the Church depends upon their continued faith and support. They have grown up in a time of discord and uncertainty within the Catholic Church. I believe it has tested the transition of their faith from child to young adult, and made it more difficult to build their relationship with Christ through the Church community. How do we get young people to appreciate the importance of their relationship with Christ and connect it to the Catholic Church? That is the question of our time.


Thank you so much for this beautiful interview.I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your sense of engagement with others. We will get there.