By William Hageman
Some kids watch sports on television and want to be an athlete.
Mareile Cusack used to watch “Perry Mason” and decided to become a lawyer. Not the flashy attorney of TV courtroom dramas; she wanted something more cerebral. Today, she’s senior vice president and general counsel at Ariel Investments in Chicago.
“I used to watch ‘Perry Mason’ and I always imagined I’d be a litigator, and people would melt in front of me,” she says. “But I realized I was a much more transactional lawyer. So the desire to really conclude things and come to a final point is what attracted me.”
Cusack (her first name is pronounced ma-RYE-lee) joined Ariel in 2007. Before that she was associate general counsel and chief enforcement counsel at the Chicago Stock Exchange. Previously, she served as chief legal counsel for the Illinois Gaming Board and as an attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission. She also worked at two Chicago-based law firms. It was a slow, steady climb, one that had a tumultuous beginning.
Cusack was born in Haiti in 1958. Her father worked in government, but was sent into exile in 1959, leaving his wife and three children behind. They lived in hiding for about a year.
“(My mother) tells the story of one day coming home, and the police were on both sides of the street,” Cusack says. “They were ransacking our house. A friend of hers, a police officer, said, ‘You have to get out of here.'”
They eventually escaped to Guinea in northwest Africa, where they were reunited with her father.
“He worked with the government, which was in transition,” she says. “We were there till I was 7. It was wonderful, wonderful. I was surrounded by all sorts of foreigners. Chinese, French, Russians. My friends were from everywhere.”
But she says a growing xenophobia in Guinea convinced her parents to move to France. After 10 years there, they decided the children would have better opportunities in the U.S., so she and her brother were sent to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
She graduated in 1977, then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in European history and economics. She earned her law degree from the University of Virginia in 1985.
She recently discussed her career and her interests, education is a passion, in one of Ariel’s conference rooms. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: Some people may think transactional law is sort of dry compared to “Perry Mason.”
A: I absolutely love practicing law. There’s a real discipline to it. It’s like unraveling a puzzle. As you work through issues, you find ways to interpret words. I like to clarify issues. Everything about law I enjoy. … What I really love is practicing law in-house. The client is your firm.
Q: After all these years, where, how do you still find challenges?
A: At Ariel, there are always new issues, new strategies we’re going into, new markets, investments in various jurisdictions. Eighty people with 80 perspectives. So they all come to me with questions. My day is never exactly the same. I shift quickly. There are lots of new issues that come to me. I’m a naturally curious person, there’s always something new to learn.
Q: You embrace curiosity.
A: The key to happiness in life is constantly learning. Never stop. I read a lot. I take classes at the University of Chicago’s Basic Program. I’m continuing to learn to improve myself, discovering things (I) don’t know. I feel like I’m a kid in school, always learning.
Q: You have two children.
A: My daughter graduated from Sarah Lawrence … she’s now working for City Year in New York (a group that promotes education). She helps various public school administrators. She work with kids, helps (students) learn. She’s 23. My son is about to graduate from Colby College in Maine. He’s 21.
Q: Will they be following in your footsteps?
A: My daughter, maybe. She’s a natural lawyer. A litigator. She argues. My son is more interested in science. His degree is in economics and geology.
Q: You’re on the boards of the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Great Books Foundation and the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. Do those all reflect your interests?
A: John Rogers (chairman, CEO and Chief Investment Officer at Ariel) got me on the Smart Museum board. They asked him for a recommendation. He walked out (of his office) and said, “Who’s got a lot of art?” Someone said, “I’ve been to Mareile’s house; she does.” So he recommended me. I most recently joined the Lincoln Park Zoo board, in part because my son, since he was little, has had a passion for zoos and animals. When we would travel, we’d go to the San Diego Zoo, the zoo in Brooklyn. And we spent a lot of time at the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was only fitting when there was an opening I joined. Great Books, that spoke to my passion for learning. I preach that education is the key to everything, and being able to read and enjoy books is fundamental to enjoying life.
Q: What’s your all-time favorite book?
A: I have to say Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” First of all, to me it reads like poetry. It’s just beautifully written. And also it deals with ethical issues of right and wrong, deals with the fundamental issues of what are your responsibilities. A misunderstood monster, good versus evil. I read it the first time in high school. It’s still on my bookshelf. I’ve read it a couple of times since.
Q: What’s your favorite animal at Lincoln Park Zoo?
A: Currently it’s the macaques. It’s a new exhibit (Regenstein Macaque Forest) they just finished. They’re amazing. They actually have facial expressions.
Q: Any other pastimes?
A: I love to run. I try to run three times a week, if not more. I go for long runs by myself. It’s really about enjoying nature. No music. I listen to nature, birds, other walkers. It brings peace. I do it along the lakefront. When I’m able to take a vacation I love to travel, I love going hiking. Peru, Machu Picchu, Morocco, a hiking trip to the Amalfi Coast in Italy. So I can’t wait for vacation to go hiking, when I find peace without my cellphone. … That’s my way of recharging.
Q: What’s most relaxing?
A: For me, running. It’s something you can always improve on. That fits in with my philosophy. Always seeking, never finding, always trying to improve yourself.
Q: What sort of music do you listen to?
A: Nina Simone is my absolute favorite artist of all time. I love Louis Armstrong. I listen when I’m cleaning or around the house.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: Honestly, the person who inspires me most is my mother. She wakes up each morning happy. She made a home for us, no matter where we had to go. She went on to get her Ph.D. in French literature. She is my inspiration. I want to be like her when I’m 80. She had three kids, she lived in hiding, going country to country, and she never flinched. She moved to New Hampshire after my father died. She drives an SUV, like a truck. No challenge is too big for her.