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William Winokur’s first novel, Marathon, begins with a quote from Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” That idea, says Winokur (class of 1981), is what drove him to leave his lucrative job on Wall Street at the age of 40 to write this touching story of mutual salvation.

Marathon is based on the life of Ion Theodore, who was Winokur’s ­seventh-­grade art teacher at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx. Although Winokur was initially “a reluctant art student,” he says, Theodore saw talent in him and let him work outside the usual class curriculum. The two formed a close friendship, and even after Theodore retired, Winokur arranged to study with him one on one. The two held class in a makeshift studio in the boiler room of one of the buildings at Horace Mann.

“Time with him was an oasis from the academic and social rigors of the Horace Mann School,” Winokur writes. “His stories took me away from the Bronx and lifted me into worlds that I had only begun to read about.” It was during these times that Winokur gleaned hints of Theodore’s remarkable past: born a slave in the Ottoman Empire, he had won emancipation during World War I and then trained to become a world-class marathon runner. Theodore was selected to run for the Greek national team in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (he was later ruled ineligible because he had emigrated to the United States six months earlier), and he carried the torch at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

But it wasn’t until Theodore’s death that Winokur learned the story that would become the basis of his novel. The two had reconnected about a year before, when Theodore was living in the care of a young woman named Mary, whom he had known when she was a child. At a memorial service held at the Horace Mann School, Mary told Winokur that he had been Theodore’s favorite student, and that Theodore had told her stories about him up until the hour of his death. She wanted to know what Theodore had been like during “the Horace Mann years,” and in turn, she said, she could share a story about Theodore that Winokur certainly hadn’t heard before.

It was Mary’s story–an epic tale of interwoven lives–that inspired Winokur to write Mara­thon. “When I thought about writing the story of Ion,” he says, “I knew that the real story was not mine as a student.”

Still, the book’s central character, Marianna–a high-powered, materialistic attorney who struggles to find meaning in her unfulfilling career–reflects Winokur’s own transformation from carefree art student to investment banker to novelist. “After you graduate, it’s not about creating art–it’s about getting a good job,” he says. “Life gets very serious. All of a sudden the world is on top of you–and I lost that insouciance somewhere along the way between MIT and Wall Street.” But it returned with the writing of the book. “Thank goodness I got to a point where I could find it again,” he says, “because really, life is too short, and it’s not about money.”

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