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William F. Connell School of Nursing

Happy 100th Birthday, Dean Kelleher

celebrating the life and work of dean rita kelleher

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by James A. Woods, SJ

This past March, Dean Emeritus Rita Kelleher celebrated her 100th birthday. We present this tribute to Rita in honor of her work, and in celebration of this milestone.

Great institutions are built from the inside out, over time, year after year, day by day.  They are built by individuals whose vision soars always upward like a gothic arch, and whose dedication over a lifetime secures the foundation below.  The vast majority of those who worked to build the Jesuit university of Boston College did so without expecting that they would live to see the vision realized. Dean Rita P. Kelleher was such a builder, her contagious faith and fortitude uniquely mixing inspiration, innovation, and idealism.

A university of Boston College’s stature could not have been built without people like Dean Kelleher who believed deeply about creating a Catholic university for Boston, and generously joined their talents and strengths with the Jesuits.  Committed to broadening the vision, Dean Kelleher aspired to be part of something larger and more enduring than herself.

Michael P. Walsh, SJ, the architect of Boston College’s transition from a college to a university, wrote to Dean Rita P. Kelleher, the builder of Boston College’s Nursing School, just before announcing his own retirement, “This is one of the more pleasant duties I have had to perform in all my years as President.  The trustees voted this morning to grant you an Honorary Degree at Commencement on June 3, 1968.”  Forty years later the architect, the very soul of the Connell School of Nursing, celebrates her hundredth birthday on March 21, 2008.

In honoring Rita Kelleher, we recognize the importance of individual lives—the impact, planned or not, that each of us can have.  The Book of Wisdom exhorts us to love justice, recognize God’s goodness, and seek the Lord with integrity of heart.  From this, wisdom is born and we live the “good life.”  Rita Kelleher is such a woman; disciplined, self-possessed, and prudent.  She is at home with herself.  Her gifts rest lightly, yet securely, upon her, and all who know her are privileged.  As dean, she never sought the spotlight.  Modest in the old-fashioned way of stepping aside, she allowed new faculty to flourish.  Devoid of self-importance and vanity, Dean Kelleher did not worry whether history would fully capture and proclaim her excellence, so she never focused on proving herself right.  Acting and doing what was proper mattered.  She understood confidentiality and projected confidence.  Discreet, but not silent, her leadership emanated from within.  She did her best and kept walking.  She was happiest when things turned out well for the School of Nursing, her primary interest.

Gratitude for the opportunities the deanship at Boston College granted enveloped Dean Kelleher’s life.  As nursing students began to shoulder adult responsibilities, Rita Kelleher was delighted to be part of forming “completely self-sufficient young women.”  She accepted the challenge of imbuing in them knowledge and values that would help them make difficult choices in a society drenched in materialism and self-absorption.  As they discovered their talents and learned to think in new ways, Dean Kelleher shared the faculty’s confidence in helping them to believe, as she did, that they had the potential to be the most competent, compassionate and caring nurses ever developed.

The beginnings of such a spirit continue today as Rita Kelleher still enjoys her childhood sight of Hingham Bay from the same place of her birth.  After graduating from the Faulkner Hospital School of Nursing, Miss Kelleher was hired as a private nurse to the wife and newborn child of an  executive of the United Fruit Company and accompanied them to the company’s sugar plantation in Cuba.  Here she witnessed society’s injustices to the poor who lacked even ordinary education and health care.  This lesson crafted and invigorated her philosophy of life with a vibrant commitment focused on responding to the hopes and dreams of the poor.


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Returning to the United States, Ms. Kelleher taught for a few years at the Clinton Hospital School of Nursing before studying at Columbia University’s Teachers College and earning her bachelors degree in the teaching of science.  After graduation she assumed the position of educational director of Quincy City Hospital School of Nursing, and taught at Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing and Boston University while pursuing her master’s degree in education at Boston University.  She arrived as a faculty member at Boston College in late September 1947.

Through the untiring initiative of Richard Cardinal Cushing and after learning of Boston University’s plan to open its nursing school in September, Boston College admitted its first nursing class on January 27, 1947 and opened at 126 Newbury Street.  The College of Arts and Sciences “in town” and the School of Social Work were already located there, and the downtown location made transportation easily accessible.  Nursing was allocated some classrooms and offices on the second floor, and used a large first floor room as a lounge and recreation area for students and faculty.  The limited space and crowding proved an asset in drawing faculty and students together.  Students traveled to the Chestnut Hill campus for biology, chemistry, and physics.  All 35 students in the first class were registered nurses.  Many recently discharged from the U.S. Army and Navy Nurse Corps had served in the South Pacific and European theatres of World War II.  They were enrolled under the G.I. Bill of Rights.

The class enjoyed that first semester; a new program without precedents and nursing faculty to set standards of achievement or behavior.  With such a small group, the Jesuit regent, the director of the nursing school, and the Jesuit faculty knew students individually, creating a very relaxed atmosphere.  Although training for leadership positions in nursing, the students seemed content that no nursing courses were required that first semester.

In September 1947, Dean Mary Maher and the nursing faculty of one, Rita Kelleher, met the 25 high school graduates enrolled in the initial five-year program.  For the first three semesters, students took required liberal arts courses.  With no teaching responsibilities, the nursing staff—the Dean, Mary Maher, and the faculty, Rita Kelleher—were relegated to a small sectioned-off back office with limited secretarial help.  Dean Maher was required to go through the registrar to the Jesuit regent for all appointments and correspondence.  Since both the dean and Associate Professor Kelleher had attended Teachers College, and been influenced by Dewey and Kilpatrick’s pragmatic philosophy, their own educational philosophy was suspect from the beginning.  As an antidote, both were required to take an introductory philosophy course offered Saturday mornings in the School of Social Work.  Ms. Kelleher began to wonder if by accepting her position at Boston College, she had traded a world of female authority at Quincy City Hospital School of Nursing for that of male dominance.

Six months later when Dean Maher left, Rita Kelleher, by then the senior faculty person, was asked to assume the deanship.  She began an adventure focused on designing and organizing the specifics to set Boston College on a course to expand its nursing school.  Each day she enthusiastically assumed the challenges of directing a new school. At a time when diploma schools were considered the gold standard for nursing, she was among the national vanguard promoting the baccalaureate degree as a requirement for professional practice.

Twenty-six registered nurse undergraduates received their bachelor degrees at the University Convocation in June 1949.  While the dean sat in the auditorium, the Jesuit regent of the nursing school conferred the degrees.  After this first commencement, the dean of the school of nursing sat on the platform with the other deans and awarded the degrees. 

Breaking barriers, however, was not limited to just dean and faculty issues.  The all-male undergraduate full-time business and arts and sciences students presented particular problems.  Not only did they harass and deride nursing students with derogatory remarks about their appearance and scholastic ability, they also excluded them from the yearbook and refused to publish their articles in The Heights.  Permitted to make scenery and costumes for the Dramatic Society, nursing students were excluded from the cast and the University Chorale.

With cool aristocratic bearing, enormous warmth and compassion, and wicked humor, Dean Kelleher addressed these realities as well as the challenges her students faced living in the dormitories.  Subjected to bias and higher standards of behavior, nursing students resented the double standard as all infractions, regardless of how minor, were reported promptly to the dean.

Students in the five-year program also coped with problems associated with a new and evolving nursing education program, including responding to the misunderstanding and prejudicial attitudes from allied health workers.  Collegiate nursing education was considered by some to be frivolous and unnecessary for the practice of nursing.  With many fine diploma programs housed in Boston’s best hospitals, it took Dean Kelleher’s impressive negotiation, diplomatic, and collaborative skills to facilitate the clinical placement of Boston College students in these institutions.

This misunderstanding of the purpose and nature of collegiate nursing education extended into the community.  The belief that education somehow distracted from the student’s effectiveness as a nurse was common and presented additional challenges.  A hospital trustee once told Dean Kelleher, “I don’t want any of your math whiz kids taking care of me.”  Dean Kelleher was secretly pleased that he thought the students “whiz kids.”

Even Richard Cardinal Cushing, who had a personal interest in nursing, nurses, and nursing education, and realized the need for a collegiate program in Boston, challenged the idea that a college education should be part of preparing nurse practitioners.  Openly and often his words reflected his belief that nursing was a vocation, a calling motivated by “Love of Neighbor out of Love of God.”  He constantly affirmed that the best place to foster this belief was in a “Catholic hospital school of nursing under the direction of the good sisters.”  As Dean Kelleher deftly responded to the barrage of challenges from all directions, the School of Nursing thrived.


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The concept that the curriculum was the prerogative of the faculty was widely held and adhered to.  Faculty recognized the need for early involvement in developing a curriculum that met the present as well as the changing needs of the school and the profession.  Frequent curriculum revision during the first five years reflected changes in the course of studies for the registered nurse student, and changes for those entering from high school from a five-calendar-year program to a four-calendar-year program and finally to a four-academic-year program.

As with any faculty group, change did not come easily.  Some resisted any change and prevented the growth of the school by holding on to old courses and learning experiences with which they were familiar and comfortable.  Others were too eager for revision, and readily joined any curriculum movement regardless of the direction and with or without any proven need.  Most faculty, however, thoughtfully and diligently accepted committee assignments.  Faculty meetings were long, lively, and challenging, with most of the productive work occurring in smaller committee groups.  Such a collaborative environment fostered innovation that defied scale in opening a world of possibilities.  Within ten years of its founding, a Master of Science degree program was developed.

As the school, the quality of its offerings, and its graduates’ reputation were recognized and applauded, Cardinal Cushing accepted the reality of the times and the need for changes in the education of nurses.  When the Cardinal became aware of the severe overcrowding at 126 Newbury Street, and the need for additional classrooms and office space, he donated $1 million toward moving the school to the Chestnut Hill Campus.  It was important to him that the school’s enrollment increase and that the program succeed.  The new building, Cushing Hall, recognized this gift and his continuing interest and support.

Sadness and happiness marked the move from 126 Newbury Street to Cushing Hall on the University campus in March 1960.  Sadness because for 13 years this had been home to students and faculty.  Despite the inconveniences, crowding, and the long ride to campus for science classes, the students loved it.  It held fond memories of events, people, and lasting friendships.  While there, students and faculty were entities unto themselves.  The school was the center of all activities; the classrooms, library, and chapel were all theirs.  Newbury Street’s expensive shops and art galleries were the only diversion.  Happiness, however, sprang from the reality that they could now fully participate in University activities, and enjoy all the educational and recreational facilities the campus provided.

The school thrived in its new location, and so in 1967 Dean Kelleher decided after 21 years to resign as Dean effective June, 1968.  She did so with the understanding that she would continue to teach for five years, at which time she would be eligible for retirement.  It was a difficult decision.  She loved her work, always expressing great pride in the students, faculty, and school.  Having succeeded in bringing about the needed changes in school policy and curriculum, Dean Kelleher was convinced that a more assertive leadership would be necessary for future challenges.  She decided to resign for the good of the school and her own personal good.

Dean Kelleher knew the school’s reputation for high scholastic standards, and its academically and professionally gifted women faculty and students, would continue to draw national recognition and talented professionals. 

A leader in every sense of the word, Dean Kelleher pushed hard for necessary changes in policy and practice.  She accepted compromises and reversals gracefully.  Always reasonable in her requests, she approached undertakings with a remarkable sense of timing and a good sense of humor being, neither overly aggressive or demanding.

Dr. Margaret Foley, the executive director of the Conference of Catholic Schools of Nursing in St. Louis, replaced Dean Kelleher in 1968.  The transition unexpectedly proved difficult for Dean Foley.  Coping with her own serious health issues, relocating an elderly mother from West Virginia to Massachusetts, and responding to the emergence of national student unrest proved overwhelming.  Sadly, Dr. Foley died in August, 1970.

Following Dean Foley’s death, no contingency plans had been made for anyone to assume leadership.  In September the administration asked Rita Kelleher to serve as acting dean.  A time of great national upheaval greeted Dean Kelleher almost immediately.

The same unrest that erupted on campuses nationwide impacted the School of Nursing.  Students vehemently protested U.S. involvement in Vietnam, tuition increases, the quality of teaching, curriculum changes, and racial inequality.  Nursing students joined other undergraduates in a strike aimed at shutting down the university.  Dean Kelleher’s own orientation to nursing, strongly influenced by the Nightingale concept of professionalism, did not prepare her for the students’ and faculty’s behavior. Nursing students became part of the noisy crowd outside Cushing Hall yelling, “Strike!” Another protestor marched through the office banging a drum as Dean Kelleher sat at her desk.

During these stressful times, frequent and unproductive meetings were held with students, faculty, and the University faculty senate.  Campus unrest, however, did prompt some positive changes.  A university-wide study of the curriculum resulted in a more expansive view of the core curriculum.  In addition, the collective insights provided students more freedom in elective course selection.

Dean Kelleher taught students to accept freedom as hard work, to appreciate its reward, and understand that freedom requires a sense of self, but also selflessness.  She reminded them that freedom entails seeing the world around them realistically—to spot false values, understand human frailty, accept genuine doubt, and to be tolerant of a wide variety of beliefs, viewpoints, and lifestyles.  She established a culture where graduates were expected to be inquiring, clinically competent, ethically aware practitioners, and well prepared candidates for graduate studies.

Dean Kelleher chose daily to act justly, to respond fairly, and to help the most vulnerable.  She remained true to her philosophy of life crafted and cemented in her early experiences.  She experienced the exhilaration and exhaustion of spending herself for such a worthy cause.  A very happy woman, she energized all who came in contact with her.

In the summer of 1971, Rita Kelleher returned to full-time teaching.  She retired in 1973 after a twenty-six-year association with the school of nursing.