Jacqueline Grennan Wexler Memorial

Winifred Moore Auditorium
February 8, 2012

President Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble

Good afternoon.

Welcome to this celebration of the extraordinary life of an extraordinary individual: Jacqueline Grennan Wexler.

Life magazine called her “a woman who could run U.S. Steel as easily as a college.” We are happy she focused her energy and vision on Webster College.

As her successor as the next Webster president who is a woman, I have reflected on her legacy and example many times. Perhaps no more so than in recent days, and it is fitting that we come together to celebrate her singular leadership and her lasting impact for each of us.

In the mid 1960’s few women were leading higher education institutions, much less big businesses. The earliest statistics we find tell us that in the 1970’s only 4% of college presidents were women. Imagine the number for the previous decade.

While Webster shared many of the characteristics  of an entrepreneurial enterprise just rounding out its 50th year when Jacqueline became its president, Webster’s business was and continues to be educating students.

What distinguished Webster was a strong leader who galvanized those around her to make the tough decisions necessary for the college to continue to be competitive and relevant.

Jacqueline focused the Webster community on what she called the “three great drives of this century: internationalism, integration, and ecumenism.” In order to do this, Webster had to remain vibrant and responsive to students’ needs and able to adapt to what was happening in the larger world. Webster would have to embrace innovation and change.

“J” once told a Webster Journal reporter, “I didn’t know enough to be afraid.”

I cannot hear that statement without recognizing the manner in which it echoes one made by Joan of Arc, who said, “I am not afraid. . .I was born to do this.”

That absence of fear allowed for many bold moves that placed Webster on the road to achieve its current status as the only Tier 1, private, nonprofit university with campus locations around the world including metropolitan, military, online and corporate, as well as American-style traditional campuses in North America, Europe and Asia.

That absence of fear also stirred the imaginations of an impressionable and irrepressible group of women, and men, who witnessed Jacqueline’s energy and drive and experienced first-hand the profound changes and innovations for which she fought so hard. They had in Sister J an extraordinary role model, a true leader.

She challenged those who stood in the way of progress.

In so doing, she garnered national attention and drew the spotlight to Webster. While many criticized her, she remained steadfast in her vision for Webster’s future.

She was remarkable.

She was an articulate agent of change, a pioneer, an explorer. I feel fortunate to be on the trail she blazed.

And I am reminded of the power of story to guide and inform us, especially those we will hear today.

As Gloria Steinem once said, “Perhaps we should share stories in much that same spirit that explorers share maps, hoping to speed each other’s journey, but knowing the journey we make must be our own.”

Jacqueline’s map is one with many milestones that include  the lay Board of Trustees, the College School, and the house that Jackie built – the Loretto-Hilton Center.

Jacqueline’s energy and vision extended beyond Webster where she was instrumental in finding solutions to educational challenges and opportunities in the community-at-large.

For example, she was a member of the committee that developed Project Head Start and served on President Kennedy’s White House Commission on Education and Research, and President Johnson’s educational advisory board.

She developed the VAULT program – Veterans Accelerated Urban Learning for Teaching, a program to recruit veterans who could channel their talents into some field of education, focusing on inner-city youth.

The first class of recruits came from Fort Leonard Wood in 1968. According to a Globe-Democrat article, the program was so popular it inspired a flood of applications. Colleges had such a hard time keeping up that they petitioned the Pentagon to stop circulating information about the program.

This program not only gave veterans a promise of training for a productive and bright future, it gave them the membership in the college community. Their experiences and perspectives contributed to the diversity of the student body and learning environment. Another example of Jacqueline’s ability to create successful programs defined by inclusion.

She was instrumental in securing the funding for the Master of Arts in Teaching Program through a grant from the Ford Foundation. And in 1961, additional funds were received to bring Dr. Robert Davis, known nationally for his work in the field of mathematics on the “Madison Math Project,” to the Webster faculty to work with the students in the MAT program.

Today we will hear reflections on the life of Jacqueline Grennan Wexler from alumni, former staff, many friends of the University, and a member of Jacqueline’s family.

Sharing with us today are Sister Donna Day, on behalf of the Sisters of Loretto along with Sister Gabriel Mary Hoare and Sister Mary Jo Hemen who will perform for us. And, we will hear from Sanford Zimmerman, the first President of the Lay Board of Trustees. Mr. Zimmerman played a significant role in the transition to a lay board and in the development of the foundation for the College’s future growth.

Let’s begin…

Thank you, Sister Gabe and Sister Mary Jo for a beautiful, heartfelt rendition of that song.

And to all who shared their reflections on the extraordinary Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, thank you. Your stories painted a remarkable portrait of Jacqueline, a remarkable person.

Webster University continues to focus on internationalism, diversity and the spirit of ecumenism. We employ innovative ideas and methods to ensure the relevance and vibrancy of our curriculum and educational experiences.

And most importantly, we feel challenged to carry forth Jacqueline’s fearless resolve to make the bold choices that will continue to advance Webster’s ability to educate students in the world.

As she wrote in the 1969-70 course catalog. “We live in an age of intense probing, probing not in a self-containing world, but in an ecumenical world of search, a search involving the insights and problems of persons from all fields, all races, and all faiths.

At Webster college we are in the business of educating students who can live in and contribute to such a world. We believe they must be educated in that world.”

We honor Jacqueline Grennan Wexler. Sister Jacqueline. Sister “J” or “J.” She was a woman of many names and dimensions. While many of us present knew her in a specific way, to know her at all was at once joyful, inspiring, and humbling.

Jerome Bruner, Harvard psychologist, colleague and friend of Jacqueline’s, said, “I remember thinking once as I rode the train back to Cambridge that the Latin “caritas” fit her life to a T: that caring was what mattered. And she cared.”

And that is what we are called to do in her memory and honor—to care—to act on that care with courage, compassion, and character. 

May we, like Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, find our legacy in the caring that compels change and commits us to the love of our community. 

Thank you for being here today to celebrate “J.”

I invite everyone here to join us next door for a reception.