Stephen Marriott and I share many things, including our first name, college alma mater, and fight against debilitating eye disease, but I believe it was something other than our similarities that stood out when reading the news recently of his passing from complications of mitochondrial disease.
Though I have never met him, or, quite honestly, even heard of him previously, I believe the impetus to read multiple accounts of his life online was a feeling of admiration and respect for the way he, like so many others, chose to live large despite blindness, becoming, I believe, a Mighty Man Despite Mitochondrial Disease.
As grandson of J.W. Marriott, founder of Marriott International, valued at over $12 billion and with over 3700 hotel properties worldwide, Stephen was taught the values from his parents that so many of us have come to appreciate in the Marriott brand – excellence, innovation, integrity, and service. It might have been assumed by many that he would become heir to the successful Marriott family business. He likely could have ridden the coattails of the Marriott name his whole life, enjoying the notoriety and prestige that accompany success but instead, at the age of 16, Stephen became a cook at a Roy Rogers restaurant, choosing to go by his middle name, Garff, instead of his last name, to shield himself from the notoriety and family connections of the Marriott name.
I can only imagine the heartache his father and then-CEO of Marriott, Bill Marriott, must have felt when Stephen began losing his vision and hearing just a few years later. In an interview with Washingtonian Magazine, Stephen once discussed this heartache, saying, “My dad likes to fix things fast. I think he got a little frustrated because he wanted to fix my eyes and my ears, and he didn’t know how to do it. None of us know how to do it yet.” By his early 20s, Stephen could barely make out his professor’s notes on the chalkboard, and by his mid-30s, he was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease.
While it is not publicly known with which type of mitochondrial disease Stephen suffered, a brief description of mitochondrial disease may provide educational value to some readers. You may remember from middle-school biology class that mitochondria are the “Mighty Mouse” or the “Powerhouse of the Cell,” providing the body with energy for its many functions. Secondarily to functioning as the “powerhouse of the cell,” mitochondria act as both generators and scavengers of oxidative damage throughout the body. If the oxidative damage becomes too great, mitochondria are also able to release cytochrome c, a protein which induces a series of reactions designed to degrade the cell in a process known as apoptosis. As you might imagine, the impaired function of mitochondria leads to an imbalance of oxidative stress throughout the body, resulting in the dysfunction and disease of various body tissues and organ. Mitochondrial disease has been implicated in various systemic diseases, including diabetes mellitus, dementia, deafness, and hypertension. As a high energy demand organ, the eye is particularly susceptible to mitochondrial damage, and mitochondrial disease may cause, at least in part, several eye diseases, including ptosis, atrophy of the optic nerve and glaucoma, pigmentary retinopathy, and macular degeneration.
Stephen Marriott, like so many who similarly suffer from mitochondrial disease, blindness, and other disabilities, was determined to not allow his condition to limit his happiness, productivity, and success. Soon after finally being diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, he began taking an experimental drug, which was believed to of great benefit, prolonging his life for many years. He made the most of these additional years, and ultimately graduated from college, earned an MBA, married, and had three children, all while rising from his initial position as cook at Roy Rogers to becoming the Executive Vice-President for Culture at Marriott International. He also served in multiple leadership capacities, including as member of the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and as board member of the American Federation of the Blind and the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders.
While Stephen Marriott will not again be seen training employees the values and culture of Marriott International, he has left us with many lessons of his own of hard work, dedication, and determination to live life to the fullest despite visual and hearing impairment. Indeed, Stephen Marriott was a Mighty Man Despite Mitochondrial Disease.