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Commentary: Remembering Sister J with thanks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2012 - At the end of the year, people frequently pause to remember people who have died. This is one tribute to a person who has a large impact on the St. Louis area: Jacqueline Grennan Wexler:

As 2012 draws to a close, it is fitting to recall a legendary figure in St. Louis higher education who died earlier this year. Sister Jacqueline Grennan, leader of Webster College throughout most of the 1960s (first as academic vice president, then as president), brought national attention to St. Louis as few others before or since.

In 1965, Life magazine described her as “brilliant, versatile, burning with ambition and energy. … She could just as easily run US Steel. In four years she has begun to turn her tiny school into one of the most exciting colleges in the Midwest.” Soon thereafter the Saturday Review described her as “the most publicized nun in America.” She was named by President Kennedy to a panel of luminaries that developed the Head Start program. Dick Cavett and David Susskind invited her onto their TV shows. She was covered extensively by the New York Times And — as a special badge of honor — she was publicly attacked by Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

What long-term effects did her headline-grabbing leadership have on St. Louis? The list is extensive. “Sister J” was deeply committed to social justice, and her early work in bringing Head Start here has been cited as one reason for the absence of race riots in St. Louis during the long hot summer of 1968. Her innovations in teacher training programs — requiring high levels of subject matter expertise in teachers — attracted world-class scholars and huge sums in grant money, with benefits not only for the region but for teacher training across the country.

Even more significant legacies have to do with Webster’s growth and with the arts.

When Grennan arrived at Webster College in 1962, Catholic higher education was in steep decline across the country. Leading scholars lamented the inferior research produced by Catholic universities. Their boards and top executive positions were filled almost exclusively by priests and nuns, limiting their access to wealthy donors and to professional management expertise. Catholic families began choosing secular alternatives. Women’s colleges were hit harder than men’s, and Webster, which Grennan described in a 1963 Time magazine article as “an ordinary Catholic women’s college,” was ailing more than most.

Every Catholic college in St. Louis found its own path to success; and Grennan led Webster down an especially dramatic one. In 1967, Sister J stood on the stage of the Loretto-Hilton Performing Arts Center and announced to the electrified assembly of students and faculty that she was defrocking both the university and herself. She had become convinced, she proclaimed, that academic excellence required a level of open inquiry that could not flourish under the Catholic male hierarchy. A precipitating incident (she later told me) was an effort by the local Cardinal to force her to fire two biology professors who had the temerity to teach evolution.

She was eager to see the college continue to promote Catholic values, and remained a close affiliate of the Sisters of Loretto. (Two years later she did marry, and became Jacqueline Grennan Wexler.) But she could tolerate no compromise in academic quality. In the months that followed, she negotiated not only a transfer of governance to an entirely lay board, but also the almost unheard of transfer of ownership of the college’s property from the Vatican to the lay board. That move saved the college and launched it toward its current status as an international university, with campuses in six countries and global enrollments that make it the largest university based in St. Louis.

Grennan’s other notable legacy is in the arts. She initiated a market study that signaled a major opportunity in the performing arts. She adopted this as a top strategic priority and, recognizing the need for a suitable venue, set her sights on Conrad Hilton. She knew that Hilton was deeply grateful to the Sisters of Loretto for their impact on him as a boy growing up in rural New Mexico. In storybook fashion, she won him over and he funded the venue — though he insisted that not he but the sisters get top billing. And thus came to be the Loretto-Hilton, the venue of the Rep, the Opera Theater and the top-flight Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts.

A few years ago I sought to re-establish Webster’s relationship with the Hilton family by meeting with Steve Hilton, Conrad’s grandson and president of the multi-billion dollar Hilton Humanitarian Foundation. Grennan herself kindly sent him a letter of introduction to me. When I entered the Hilton Foundation’s Los Angeles offices, Steve Hilton greeted me and promptly escorted me to a conference room featuring a mural covering an entire wall. He pointed to a prominent portion of the mural, showing his grandfather and a nun, with a note passing between them saying, “Thank you, Sister J.”

“Is he thanking her or is she thanking him?’ I asked.

Steve Hilton’s reply: “We like to think of it both ways.”

In the year of her passing, St. Louis can say the same — in one way.

Thank you, Sister J.

David Carl Wilson is dean of Webster University's College of Arts & Sciences and a professor of philosophy there.

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