Marlene “Mari” Sekharan had one dying wish.
She wanted her ashes to be scattered in the Bix 7 Plaza near the iconic bronze statues of Quad-City Times Bix 7 figures — many of whom she knew quite well. When she died four years ago from complications related to lung disease, her husband, Raj Sekharan, wanted to honor that request.
In the front row of the plaza’s walking path, he had some of her remains placed underneath a brick etched with her name. There’s another brick there for her mother, Dolores Jepsen, a longtime volunteer commonly known throughout Bix 7 circles as “Gram.” And a third brick bearing Raj Sekharan's name is next to his wife’s, waiting for when his time comes.
“I thought that was very strange,” Raj Sekharan, a retired pathologist, said during a recent interview with the Quad-City Times. “(But) that’s how much Bix meant for her.”
Now, Raj Sekharan is taking the memorial of his wife a step further. In her memory, he’s put together a new scholarship program for members of St. Ambrose University’s track team. Considering her love of sports and education, Raj Sekharan says he thinks the program is something that truly fits to memorialize his wife, to whom he was married for nearly 50 years.
'The hostess with the mostest'
Friends of Mari Sekharan remember her as a gourmet chef who’d whip up inventive and tasty meals for her guests. In the early days of the Quad-City Times Bix 7 race – before thousands of people came out from around the world to participate in the festivities and sport – gatherings of elite runners were an annual holiday in the Sekharan household.
Race Director Ed Froehlich, who is retiring this year after spending the last four decades organizing the Bix, credits those parties with helping to make the Bix the major regional event it is today.
“That’s what really built the race. Because the athletes, the word got around that we have this great dinner at the Sekharans when they get into town,” said Froehlich, who remembered Mari Sekharan as a “dear friend.”
Raj Sekharan remembers those dinners too. His wife would spend hours planning the meals she wanted to make – Raj Sekharan, who grew up in India before moving to the U.S., jokes that she would cook “everything except Indian” – cleaning around the house and setting up decorations.
One year, the Sekharans spray-painted a running shoe gold for the table centerpieces. Another year, they carved the Nike emblem into a big watermelon that held the fruit salad. High-carb foods geared toward a runner’s diet were always on the menu, Raj Sekharan recalls, along with plenty of desserts.
And he says the top runners in the country still talk about her meals and hospitality.
“She enjoyed it immensely,” Raj Sekharan said.
Following the death of Mari Sekharan’s mother Dolores Jepsen, the longest Bix 7 volunteer in the race’s history who died in 2001 at the age of 90, Mari Sekharan remembered those parties as something she and her mother simply loved to do.
"We made everything from scratch," the late Mari Sekharan said during a 2001 interview with the Quad-City Times. "Gram and I both loved to cook and it was pretty much nonstop cooking. We would sleep for maybe an hour or two if we were lucky. She was in her 80s then, but it really gave her a sense of pride to be part of something like the Bix.''
When the Bix 7 grew to massive proportions, the Sekharans were no longer able to play host. But Mari Sekharan remained involved as the longtime chairwoman of the Friday Party.
“She was just the hostess with the mostest,” said Joan Benoit Samuelson, another professional runner and longtime Bix 7 participant who was a frequent guest of the Sekharans.
After Mari Sekharan died, Samuelson bought a rosebush to be planted in the backyard of Sekharans’ home in the McClellan Heights neighborhood. Only a few weeks ago, the rosebush had yet to bloom. But recently pink blossoms have begun to grow, she said.
“Now it has all of these beautiful pink blossoms,” Samuelson said. “That tells me that Mari still has a hand in this event.”
Another who remembers the Sekharan dinners quite well is Bill Rodgers, the professional marathoner whose name and likeness have long been a fixture of the race. Rodgers says Mari Sekharan’s meals were “first-rate” – the type of cooking you could get at the best restaurants. And having the runner parties in the Sekharan home, he said, offered a sort of comfort for the professional runners who were traveling from hundreds of miles away to participate.
“It was kind of low-key. It was fun. And that was the Bix,” Rodgers said. “And I think she contributed so much to what the Bix was all about — that connection with people in Iowa, with people from around the country and around the world. And that was priceless.”
A new scholarship for St. Ambrose
Two scholarships, which amount to $5,000, were announced by Raj Sekharan on Friday evening during the Quad-City Times Bix 7 Pre-Race Party in St. Ambrose University’s Rogalski Center. The scholarship is to be a recurring offering for members of the university’s track team on the basis of need. Raj Sekharan said scholarships would be offered to one man and one woman team member each year in accordance with his wife's desire for equitable educational opportunities.
During an emotional speech, Raj Sekharan expressed gratitude for relationships forged over the past decades through the Bix 7, saying the event symbolized "more than a race" for his late wife.
“Ever since her passing, I wanted to do something special for the race in her honor, for her legacy, to keep her memory alive in the running community,” Raj Sekharan said, adding: “(The scholarship) is a new addition to the race starting this year and for years to come.”