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Marlene Isom is the 2016 Athena-Grease Goddess.

Marlene Isom will don her first toga on June 11 when she graces the Athens Grease Festival as Athena.

“I'm afraid,” said the woman who works tirelessly at the family business, Isom’s Orchard in Athens. “I wish I were taller and had long beautiful hair.”

Isom was one of seven women the public nominated for Athena-Grease Goddess for the festival sponsored by Spirit of Athens, a Main Street program. The Athens Grease Festival touts itself as a quirky event that honors the Greek origin of the city’s name and is a celebration of all things fried. Organizers embellish the blending of Greek and Southern to create a family-friendly event on The Square to support downtown revitalization efforts.

In 2013, Promotions Committee Chair Holly Hollman created the Athena-Grease Goddess contest.

“The mythical Athena was known as a wise Greek goddess who loved and protected the City of Athens, could be a warrior, and had a creative side and interest in the arts, crafts and agriculture,” Hollman said. “Likewise, the Athena–Grease Goddess should demonstrate similar qualities through her willingness to give back to the city.”

Isom’s nomination form notes her “sacrificial giving,” her love of Athens and her creative abilities. In 2011, she created a Dinner in the Orchard event for Athens-Limestone Hospital Foundation and raised $11,000. In 2012, she hosted Dinner in the Orchard for the Athens-Limestone Public Library and raised $11,500. 

In 2014, she incorporated the Athens-based band Alabama Shakes with Dinner in the Orchard, and despite rain storms that moved the event indoors, $40,000 was raised for High Cotton Arts, a non-profit downtown art incubator. 

In 2015, she focused on one of her passions, quilting, and with the help of family and friends, made the Threads of Honor Quilt by selling blocks for veterans’ names, raising $40,000 for the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives.

Her nomination form also noted her culinary skills in frying potatoes, okra and apples. The contest includes extra points for nominees who have a best fried dish. Like many Southern women, she learned to cook from her mama, granny, and mother-in-law.

“I can make a mean Thanksgiving dressing thanks to my granny, some awesome mac and cheese from my mama’s recipe and fry up some bad okra per my mother-in-law,” Isom said.

Students who are members of TRAIL (Together Renewing and Improving Limestone), chose Isom as Athena based on her community activities and cooking skills. TRAIL, supported by the Dekko Foundation, provides grants in the community and approved a $2,000 grant to the Athens Grease Festival. As top sponsor of the festival, the group got to name the 2016 Athena. 

“Thanks so much for the opportunity to choose Athena-Grease Goddess,” said Susan Wales, Athens High School counselor who works with TRAIL. “Students enjoyed reviewing the applications and chose Marlene Isom. Her generous heart and love of southern cooking put her application on top.”

Isom said she admires the City of Athens for involving students in important activities.

“When you told me that students selected me, I thought, ‘Wow. That means they are paying attention to things happening in their community and that happening things must be important to them,’” Isom said. “That makes me proud of the youth in our community. By seeing the importance it means they will carry on involvement in our city for years to come. I’m proud to be part of that example for our younger citizens.”

Isom said Athens is blessed with numerous strong women, and the public could have nominated more than seven.

“We could choose an Athena every week if we began looking,” Isom said. “I can think of so many more deserving than I, and that's a good thing for our Athens town.”

The other nominees this year were:

• Karen Middleton – A writer, actor and artist who volunteers with various organizations.
• Deborah Gill – A retired business owner who volunteers with her church and community.
• Martha Jo Leonard – Who volunteers with Group Dekko, Limestone County Sports Hall of Fame, Foundation for Aging and more.
• Olivia Carter – An Athens Bible School student who serves with the Athens Mayor’s Youth Commission.
• Diane Lehr – Who volunteers with Athens Arts League and provides art opportunities to underserved youth.
• Trisha Black – Former Spirit of Athens executive director who now works with Main Street Alabama.

Isom said these women are examples to the youth to stay involved in their community.

“There is always something to do, something that needs to be done from simple tasks to the complex,” Isom said. “My advice to our youth is to, ‘Go ahead. Jump on in. Don’t be afraid. Be a part of something.’”

As Athena-Grease Goddess, Isom will lead the opening ceremonies for the Athens Grease Festival on Saturday, June 11, at 11:30 a.m. on The Square. She will be given Greek-Southern attire that includes a toga, battery-operated torch, burlap sash and head piece. She will oversee festivities from a tacky throne sitting atop the Limestone County Courthouse steps.

“I'm glad that you were looking for someone who loves their community and willing to do things rather than a beauty queen,” Isom added. “I'm proud to receive this honor.”