A Dean's legacy: Remembering Rita P. Kelleher
by jane whitehead, photographs by suzanne camarata
To her colleagues and students at Boston College, Rita Kelleher was the soul of the School of Nursing, the visionary dean who in 20 years built a top-tier women's professional school within what was then a Jesuit-run bastion of male power. To her clan of nieces and nephews and their children, she was "Aunt Rita," the family advisor, caretaker, and problem-solver who talked like Katherine Hepburn, enjoyed a Manhattan, and hosted cookouts at her Hingham Bay house on Boston's South Shore.
"Capturing all that defined Rita proves nearly impossible," said James A. Woods, S.J., dean of Woods College of Advancing Studies and for 56 years a friend and colleague of Kelleher, who died at the age of 101 in November 2009. But the reminiscences of some 80 former students, colleagues, friends, and family members who gathered to celebrate Rita Kelleher's long, rich life coalesced into a vivid portrait at a memorial tribute on May 12, 2010.
"She was iconic. She stood up for women's rights long before anybody else came along," Barbara O’Connell '58 told the group gathered for the tribute in the Fulton Hall Honors Library. Kelleher's 20-year deanship at Boston College was at a time when the nursing school was located at 126 Newbury Street, and students trekked to the Chestnut Hill Campus twice weekly for strictly segregated science classes, noted O'Connell’s classmate, Eileen Quigley.
When Kelleher presented herself at the gates of Boston College as a candidate for the sole faculty position at the nursing school in 1947, she was told that the president did not interview potential kitchen employees, Woods recalled. (At that point, Kelleher had a degree in science teaching from Columbia University and was educational director at Quincy City Hospital School of Nursing, he noted.)
But even in the late 1940s, Kelleher had the foresight not only to be "thinking about baccalaureate degrees, but also about what kind of program there needed to be for the leaders of the future," said Connell School of Nursing Dean Susan Gennaro, who recalled her one, inspiring meeting with Rita Kelleher in 2008. Kelleher's vision for the School as a beacon for professional nursing education shone through all her stories of the early days, said Gennaro.
Without persistence and humor, that vision would have foundered, suggested Gennaro, who read a passage from Kelleher's memoir describing her frustration during her early years at Boston College with University meetings, where "an
inordinate amount of time was spent on matters such as women cheerleaders, and the appropriate behavior and dress for the women students when they were on campus."
"Rita began to wonder," said Woods, "if by accepting a position at Boston College she was trading a world of female authority at Quincy City Hospital School of Nursing for that of male dominance." The overwhelmingly female audience laughed.
But Kelleher never wasted time proving herself right, said Woods. Instead, she focused on changing policy and practice, and within 10 years of the School's founding had established a master of science degree program. Always in the national vanguard promoting the baccalaureate degree as a requirement for professional practice, she kept up with reading on curriculum changes that would further nurses' professional development right to the end of her life, Woods said.
Elizabeth M. Grady '59, M.S. '64, recalled meeting Kelleher at her student interview in the mid-1950s. She was "elegantly groomed and attired in a business suit," with a reserved, almost formal manner softened by an "unmistakable warmth" in her eyes, said Grady. In the late 1960s, she and Kelleher roomed together for three days at a national nursing conference. Grady (by then an instructor in medical-surgical nursing at Boston College) was "stunned" by Kelleher’s collegiality as they discussed "all things nursing," and by witnessing her heroic struggle with debilitating arthritis. To the end, said Grady, "Rita was up to date on current events—Democratic politics, poetry read and written, and the Boston College of now. She always had a joke to share, and she was full of spirit."
"We knew she worked at Boston College and was kind of important, but we knew her as Aunt Rita," said Ed Dann, a great-nephew. "She was the person that everybody would go to for life advice," he said. Although she never married, she was the third youngest of 10 siblings, and she had a vibrant, sometimes tumultuous family life entertaining a throng of nieces, nephews, and their children—175 at last count.
"She loved to entertain, and knew all their names, and remembered most of the birthdays," said Dann, who finished his tribute to his great aunt by singing "Danny Boy," a song she loved. The last time he sang it for her, Dann said, he "messed up." This time, he was determined "to get it right for Rita." ✹