Of all the people one could name a public building after, Dennis Marion was probably the one who would’ve wanted it the least.
But in the end, that’s how it turned out, just as those close to him always suspected it would.
Marion, one of Cumberland County’s and Pennsylvania’s most storied public servants, died last year at the age of 62. Earlier this year, the county completed a re-naming of its human services building on East High Street in Carlisle after him.
But Marion was famously reluctant to take the limelight, at least personally.
“He just didn’t want a fuss made,” said his wife, Camille Marion. “He preferred that it never be about him.”
“I think he would’ve been embarrassed by it, but he also would’ve been pleased in a humble way” about the building naming, said Jack Carroll, director of the Cumberland-Perry Drug & Alcohol Commission and Marion’s close colleague for most of his career.
“He would never ask for it, but I hope, as he looks down on us, that there’s some quiet satisfaction,” said former county commissioner Rick Rovegno. “The kind of satisfaction Dennis would get is not the personal recognition, but the knowledge that the things he participated in and helped to build are still being appreciated.”
Certainly the building dedication is intended as a thank-you to Marion and his family, but just as importantly, it’s a reminder to the county that, in the not-often-glamorous world of local government, change is possible as long as one maintains a long-term vision like Marion’s.
“His commitment was tireless and just knew no boundaries,” County Commissioner Gary Eichelberger said. “Dennis’ example is a constant reminder to people of what they can accomplish even when the odds and the budgets are against them.”
Marion’s philosophy was one of incremental change, dogged commitment to the idea that change, especially in government, comes from a slow grind.
The mantra was often put as “small changes consistently over time,” Camille said. Carroll said the notion was developed from a consultant that worked with Marion and himself in the early years, and was originally something to the effect of “little things done consistently across time make a big difference.”
Marion spent 31 years in county government, and another four years with the state’s Department of Human Services. He was hired as director of the Cumberland-Perry Drug & Alcohol Commission in 1981, and stayed in the position for 15 years before being promoted to other positions within Cumberland County, eventually leaving for deputy directorship with the state in 2013.
Marion’s career journey wasn’t linear. He had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in art education, but was unable to find a job in his field.
“The schools didn’t want a 6-foot 4-inch male art teacher, it just wasn’t their image of what he should be,” Camille Marion said.
So Marion started working as a counselor and educator at a drug treatment facility in Montrose, a short distance from Scranton, where he and Camille had gone to college together. The move from art to social services actually made sense, his colleagues said. Marion’s thought process was extremely fast-paced and abstract, like a painting that only comes together as a coherent image toward the end of the work.
Marion’s brainstorming sessions with county staff would often leave subordinates “dazed and confused,” Carroll said. But it was a good counterweight to other parts of government that might have trouble thinking outside the box.
“Dennis was so willing to look at all the possibilities that at times we had to cajole him and just say ‘we have to move on this one thing for now,’” Eichelberger said, otherwise, it was difficult for the commissioners to keep pace with Marion’s rapid-fire thought process.
Carroll had started as the assistant director for the Cumberland-Perry Drug & Alcohol Commission only a few months before his superior left, and was replaced by Marion – then only 26 years old, the youngest person in the state to be in such a position, Carroll said.
In those early years, the publicly supported addiction treatment programs in Pennsylvania “were a shadow of what they are now,” Carroll said.
“There’s a lot of stigma today and there was even more back then,” Carroll said, making it hard to convince politicians, and the public, that putting government resources behind treatment and recovery would actually improve the lives of all people and save money down the road on incarceration.
But Carroll and Marion made progress, which often involved working massive amounts of overtime writing grants.
“I remember, many times, calling Dennis around 10 p.m. and saying ‘you and Jack have to go home,’” Camille Marion said.
It eventually started to pay off. Marion and Carroll piloted the Student Assistance program, which provides training and a network of resources to school employees, designed to spot at-risk youths and prevent substance abuse.
Much of the drug and alcohol education prevalent at the time was what Marion would describe as “scare tactics.” The Student Assistance approach was very different, but it worked, and spread, becoming a statewide model.
The Cumberland-Perry program also started working with inpatient treatment centers, rather than focusing on outpatient efforts.
“If somebody needed detox and rehab, it wasn’t going to work to just give them outpatient,” Carroll said. “It was an inefficient use of the funds that were there, and Dennis saw that.”
Marion’s fiscal eye continued after he was promoted. In 1997 he became county administrator, a sort of catch-all position where Marion was crucial in spreading computerization, which he had started in the drug and alcohol commission, into other county departments.
In 2004, he was moved to director of Human Services, overseeing not just substance abuse but also mental health, intellectual disability, children and youth, and aging services. It was there that Marion spearheaded efforts to increase housing options for the mentally ill and disabled, during a time of especially limited resources.
“We had a unique opportunity that the state was able to provide additional money to us for a very unique housing solutions program that allowed us to add capacity for mental health patients,” Eichelberger said. “Instead of a one size fits all solution … we were able to have different levels of intensity of support provided depending on someone’s condition.”
“Dennis really took the lead on that and it had a massive impact on a lot of families,” Eichelberger said. “It was a huge success story that he was able to engineer, at a time when we basically had no extra money to spend. But when the state found extra dollars, they were able to send them our way because they knew Dennis had the capacity to make the best use of them.”
Marion’s ability to cut through bureaucratic stagnation was well known.
“Dennis was always challenged by working through a bureaucracy, and he had the personality to do it,” Camille Marion said.
“He was very good at recognizing sacred cows and challenging them,” Carroll said. Marion didn’t shy away from conflict, but had a knack for confronting issues without making anyone feel attacked, Carroll said.
But of all Marion’s innovations, the deepest-reaching was the county’s Criminal Justice Policy Team, which brought together law enforcement, court, prison, and social services agencies to coordinate the process for offenders. The team’s efforts resulted in drug treatment protocols, the DUI court, the Opioid Intervention Court, the creation of a central booking system, and other methodologies.
“It takes a special kind of ability to navigate and bring order to a situation like that, to such a complex organism,” Rovegno said. “So much of what the county does and so much of our budget is wrapped into courts, probation, parole, the prison, drug and alcohol treatment, children and youth services — they’re all intertwined.”
Cumberland County’s effort in this area was not the first, but was unusual in that it was headed by Marion, a public health and social worker, as opposed to the judges, sheriffs and prison wardens who held the reins elsewhere.
But Marion had clout. He even got his law degree in order to better understand how to work through the criminal law code to help rehabilitate offenders suffering from addiction or mental illness.
“It was kind of mind-boggling to me, because he wasn’t exactly slacking at his day job,” Carroll said. “But it gave him much more credibility in moderating and managing the criminal justice side of things.”
Marion’s final move within the county came in 2008, when the county government was, according to Eichelberger and Rovegno, in a state of turmoil.
The county’s chief operating officer had been let go after an arrest on domestic violence charges. One of the three elected commissioners had also resigned in disgrace after being convicted in a case involving prostitution and sexual voyeurism, leaving Eichelberger and Rovegno as the only two members of the board.
“Rovegno and myself were the guys that everyone was looking at, and we needed to come up with a solution,” Eichelberger said. “Dennis obviously had vast experience in all facets of government … he was just the logical choice to make at that point.”
Marion was named to the top staff job, now dubbed chief clerk.
“We knew we needed someone who could come in and calm the waters,” Rovegno said, recalling the applause that broke out in the commissioners’ meeting when Marion’s appointment was announced.
“In all the years I was a county commissioner, that was the only action I ever participated in that resulted in a spontaneous standing ovation, which I think says all you need to know about the respect that Dennis Marion had in the county,” Rovegno said.
Marion would go on to make the best of the county’s financial situation during tough times. Facing a possible 22 percent tax hike in 2013, The Sentinel reported at the time, Marion worked to cut the increase down to 12 percent, cutting costs with a minimal impact to services.
Even after his four years with the state, Marion continued to be active in advising local agencies. He spoke at a meeting with the County Commissioners’ Association of Pennsylvania a day before his death, Commissioner Jim Hertzler said.
It was an abrupt end to 35 years not only helping people, but putting in place the means of helping them long into the future.
“I knew that he did a lot of things for a lot of people, but Dennis would not talk about specifics,” Camille Marion said. “I think he always just wanted to give people the opportunity to do their best work.”