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Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, Miami activist and Barry University president, dies at 90

Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin dies at 90

Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, Miami activist and Barry University president, dies at 90. This is her life in pictures.
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Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, Miami activist and Barry University president, dies at 90. This is her life in pictures.

Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, the Adrian Dominican nun whose ambitious academic agenda and prodigious fundraising skills transformed once-modest Barry University, died early Tuesday morning at the Motherhouse of the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Michigan where she had been living for several years.

The Miami civic activist and Michigan native was 90, and had survived lung cancer in 1996.

O’Laughlin, who preferred civilian clothes to a nun’s habit, became Barry’s president in 1981, overseeing 1,750 students at a small cluster of 16 buildings in Miami Shores.

By the time she retired in 2004, Barry was a multi-campus 55-building empire serving more than 7,000 students.

Even as O’Laughlin battled recurrent cancer in her later years, she helped start the Share the Warmth center to help the homeless in Michigan. Acting as a mentor, she provided guidance to the Adrian nuns to build a board, fundraise and get a grant writer, said Sister Peg Albert, who confirmed her death. She had been providing care for her friend for years.

Albert, president of Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan — where O’Laughlin earned her bachelor’s in mathematics and biology in 1958 — also said O’Laughlin would meet with her staff at the school into her late 80s whenever she could.

“She used to love to meet with the staff and share stories and share insights,” Albert said. “She loved meeting with people. She was a people person and people always just gravitated to her. She was such a charismatic person.”

O’Laughlin had a sense of humor, too. At 85, with stage 4 lung cancer in remission, the nonsmoker intercepted a phone call intended for Albert, who would serve as a keeper of many memories.

O’Laughlin took the call to tell some stories about her life. She wasn’t ready to write her own obituary.

“I keep kicking the old casket down the road,” O’Laughlin said, giggling. “But when I jump in, let it roll!”

But then she seized on the opportunity to provide a summation of her life.

“I know I am at the frontier of my mortal life,” she said. “If I could put something in an obit, I would want people to know that the longer I lived, the more I knew it was about relationships. Relationships with persons. Relationships with the earth. Relationships with the world. What’s most important is I would want to know my last thoughts were: ‘Oh, Lord, I forgive anyone who has injured me and I forgive anyone who I’ve injured.’ ”

That was Sister Jeanne: formidable, fearless and funny.

“Sister Jeanne will always be a splendid example of a moral force with a great appetite to make good things happen. She did just that — not just in building Barry but after Hurricane Andrew and in so many other ways and places. She wouldn’t call herself a saint, but I insist that she is,” said David Lawrence Jr., a nationally known children’s advocate and retired publisher of the Miami Herald.

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Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, Barry University’s president, retired June 30, 2004, after more than two decades at Barry University. She was honored with Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin Day/The Barry’s Award Spectacular. A crowd of more than 800 attended the Academy Award-style event. Pictured here in this April 28, 2004, file photo, Sister Jeanne shows off a street sign presented to her from the mayor of Miami Shores. Donna E. Natale Planas Miami Herald File

Community reach

In addition to wrangling with officials to get damaged black churches rebuilt in South Miami-Dade after the area was hit hard by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, O’Laughlin was involved in community rebuilding efforts. Her earlier efforts in South Florida began in 1981, after moving to Miami from Detroit, a year after the Mariel exodus and the Liberty City riots.

“I was one of her first stops when she came to Miami. Being presidents of two Catholic universities in South Florida, our paths crossed often,” said Father Patrick O’Neill, president of St. Thomas University from 1978 to 1987 and director of the archdiocese’s Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. “Her reach was way beyond the university.”

O’Laughlin, who joined Barry’s board in 1973 while she was assistant dean at St. Louis University, served leadership roles with the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Florida Association of Colleges and Universities, the State Board of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the Miami Coalition for a Drug-Free Community.

“Sister Jeanne, with extraordinary vision, dedication, determination, and sheer force of will, turned little Barry College into Barry University — a powerhouse institution that is a mainstay of higher education in South Florida,” said John Bussel, chair of Barry University’s Board of Trustees. “Her ability to inspire our students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees and benefactors to be better and to do more was like no other. The Barry community is eternally grateful for her leadership and will forever miss her presence.”

As Barry’s profile rose, so did that of O’Laughlin, who became a respected, if sometimes controversial, top-tier civic leader.

She broke the gender line long held by several old-boy Miami institutions, becoming the first woman on the Orange Bowl Committee, first to win the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s Sand in My Shoes Award, and first in the Non-Group, an influential, behind-the-scenes power force in the community of businessmen and civic leaders.

Among other initiatives, the Non-Group during O’Laughlin’s tenure backed a bond referendum in 1982 that helped raise $553 million for public facilities and raised $7 million in private contributions for a loan fund to help small, black-owned businesses in riot-scarred Liberty City.

She was deeply involved in efforts to fight against illegal drugs and homelessness, and for immigrants’ rights.

She was a key figure in We Will Rebuild: the volunteer committee that led Miami-Dade’s recovery from Hurricane Andrew.

In 2010, Siena Heights constructed a new performance stadium on its grounds and named it after Sister Jeanne.

Barry boasts the O’Laughlin Intercultural Center, a resource site for international students.

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Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin was honored at a tribute event, “The Power Nun,” for her years of spiritual, educational and immigration-related guidance in the South Florida community. The event was held at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables on May 19, 2015. Hector Gabino El Nuevo Herald File

Elian Gonzalez

Four years before she retired, O’Laughlin made international news for her involvement in the emotionally charged, politically polarizing Elián González case.

Elián was 5 when he survived a doomed exile voyage from Cuba to South Florida during which his mother and others drowned. He quickly became the object of a fierce struggle between his father, a supporter of Fidel Castro, who sought his return to Cuba, and Miami relatives who tried to keep him.

O’Laughlin hosted a January 2000 meeting between the boy and his two Cuban grandmothers at the Barry-owned Miami Beach estate where she lived, at the behest of close friend Janet Reno, then U.S. attorney general.

Following the meeting, O’Laughlin’s neutrality shifted. She believed that the child had “transferred his maternal love” to his 21-year-old Miami cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, and that a forced return to his father in Cuba, at that point, would be inappropriate.

She flew to the nation’s capital to lobby Reno to let Elián remain in the United States. Reno refused. Havana howled.

An article published in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party daily, characterized O’Laughlin as “the sinning nun,” branding her a liar. She “has publicly violated one of her sacred commandments: Thou shalt not lie.”

O’Laughlin faced the firestorm with candor.

“I saw fear in Elián, and I became a wiser woman at that moment, wincing at my own naivete,” she wrote in a 2000 opinion piece published in The New York Times. “I considered what it would mean for this boy suddenly to be ripped away from his surrogate mother, how this second trauma might scar him permanently. I saw and felt, at that moment, how wrong it would be to return Elián hastily to Cuba.”

Albert defended her friend and mentor. Albert worked for O’Laughlin in the president’s office at Barry for 10 years. For 13 years before that, she worked alongside O’Laughlin and watched and learned.

“During the Elián crisis she represented what the mother stood for,” said Albert. “She always thought the child should go back to his father but she felt the child should deserve a hearing because the mother lost her life to get that child here. She wasn’t trying to separate him from his father as many interpreted.”

Education and compassion

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Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin and Donna Shalala in a Sept. 10, 2003, file photo. Stephanie Sayfie Aagaard For the Miami Herald

“I’ve never met a woman with a more generous heart. She loved people. All kinds of different people. It didn’t matter what they looked like or what they believed,” Albert said. This was demonstrated, she said, by O’Laughlin’s contributions to higher education and her community outreach.

“She was about giving people chances to succeed in our world and to make it a better place. She played a large part in many immigrants’ [lives] here who were here on political asylum or other reasons beyond their control. She was always entering into the Miami community, and larger community, to intervene with problems that needed to be handled. She brought a perspective that she really cared about people and how people should be treated with respect and dignity,” Albert said.

O’Laughlin would trace the roots of her compassion to a childhood laden with sadness.

She was born Jeanne Marie O’Laughlin in Detroit, on May 4, 1929, five months before the 1929 stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. She soon learned that her mother, Mary Margaret, had been instructed that another pregnancy would kill her. Her uterus was paralyzed after O’Laughlin’s birth.

Mary Margaret conceived again five years later. Doctors were correct. O’Laughlin’s father, Thomas, a draftsman at Dodge, was left a widower with four children to raise. O’Laughlin survived them all.

The memory stirred tears as O’Laughlin reflected on her childhood in a 1993 Miami Herald profile.

Catholic leaders would always question her objectivity on certain Church teachings and she would push back, criticizing the Church hierarchy for its failures in the problems of homelessness, declining Mass attendance and the exodus of priests and nuns.

“The pro-lifers get upset with me, but I’ve lived without a mother, who died at childbirth,” she said. “It’s been pretty difficult not to look at that experience when people ask me about birth control. But I’m the least qualified to speak about abortion and birth control, having lived a celibate life.”

Detroit bus ride

Before she became a nun at 17, another event inspired O’Laughlin to a life as an educator.

A curious, compassionate eighth-grader, 13-year-old O’Laughlin rode a streetcar as it lurched through the streets of Detroit, jostling passengers. The late Republican U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. recounted the story on the congressional floor in December 2003 to honor O’Laughlin, who had announced her impending retirement from Barry University.

“A black woman entered the car with four small children. As the streetcar lurched forward, one of the children fell into her lap. Without hesitating, young Jeanne gladly held the young child for the remainder of the ride. Later, as a man departed the streetcar, he walked by and spit on young Jeanne.”

O’Laughlin, named Barry’s president emerita in 2004, remembered the incident, too, in a 1996 Miami Herald profile.

“That night I asked, ‘Dad, what causes prejudice?’ ‘Ignorance,’ he said. I said, ‘How do you get rid of it?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Only through education.’ I knew from that moment what I would do.”

“She was a very gifted person, her energy for the community was extraordinary,” said Father O’Neill, citing her involvement with the Mariel refugees and during the McDuffie riots. “Her special attention to young people should earn her a lasting legacy.”

Immigration tussles

For example, in 1993, Zhu Lin Hou, a 28-year-old Chinese widow, and Connie Lu Hou, her 2-year-old toddler, arrived in Miami with fraudulent papers from Panama and were being held in an airport-area hotel. O’Laughlin saw their plight on the TV news and reacted. She wound up sponsoring their stay in the United States.

O’Laughlin was exhausted at the time. After all, only a year earlier she’d endured a protracted struggle with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service over three other Chinese women who’d languished 14 months in hotel-room confinement. She badgered every politician she knew to secure their parole.

“She was very hands on and a big gift to this community,” O’Neill said.

Singing, dancing nun

And fearless.

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Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, right, celebrated her 80th birthday at a party at Barry University on May 4, 2009. Sister Linda Bevilacqua, then president of Barry, left, and Ann E. Paton, a vice president at the university, center, celebrated with O’Laughlin. C.M. Guerrero El Nuevo Herald File

O’Laughlin might not have been the first, or even second, Singing Nun — Jeanine Deckers (aka the Singing Nun) and Australian Sister Janet Meade — beat her to the pop charts with “Dominique” and “The Lord’s Prayer,” respectively, in 1963 and 1974.

But O’Laughlin topped them both. She was a Singing and Dancing Nun.

In 1983, O’Laughlin scored her first million dollar donation for Barry through a bet. She sported white satin and a feather boa and belted “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” aboard a millionaire’s yacht.

She doubled that figure, taking a $2 million dare to learn ballroom dancing, years before “Dancing With the Stars,” to become the first Dominican nun to bow at the U.S. Ballroom Championships.

Not everyone applauded.

The late Miami Archbishop Edward McCarthy once tsk-tsked: “Oh my goodness! I appreciate her skill in fundraising … but I wouldn’t use her methods. She knows how I feel about that,” he said.

“I think he wishes I’d be more of a sweet little nun,” O’Laughlin responded in a 1993 Herald story on the dance that made the archdiocese blanch.

Countered O’Neill: “She’d do anything to advance Barry. The only chance we have to serve our students was to get out there and fundraise, because you can’t run a university on tuition. She was the right person in the right place at the right time.”

Said Sister Linda Bevilacqua, Barry’s current president: “When assuming the presidency of then Barry College, Sister Jeanne envisioned a model of Catholic higher education that clearly challenged the status quo. She was remarkable in her resolve and courage to take the necessary risks to refashion Barry.

“We will be forever indebted to her for building relationships, physical structures and programs that endure to this day. There will never be another Sister Jeanne and we are blessed that she was ours,” Bevilacqua said.

The final frontier

In a 1997 profile in the Herald’s former Sunday magazine, Tropic, O’Laughlin also spoke of the end-game. She was one year removed from treatment for lung cancer yet there were constant reminders in the pain from radiation scars.

“When you get close to the frontier of mortal life, you say, “What would I do differently if I could continue to live? What do I wish I had done differently? There’s always a yearning in the human heart for what might have been. For me, the only thing I have wanted to be is me. I believe God made me, and I feel like He didn’t do such a bad job.”

Services

A wake will be held at 6:15 p.m. Monday, June 24, at the Adrian Dominican Sisters Life Center’s Motherhouse at 1257 E. Siena Heights Dr., Adrian, Michigan.

The funeral will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 25, at the St. Catherine Chapel at the Dominican Sisters Life Center in Michigan. Barry University plans a memorial service at a future date.

Barry University will livestream the funeral Mass in its Cor Jesu Chapel, 11300 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores, at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 25.

O’Laughlin is survived by numerous nieces and nephews and grand-nieces and grand-nephews, as well as the nuns at the Adrian Dominican Sisters.

“She made it to her 90th birthday and had a big family party,” said Sister Peg Albert. “Some 40 members of her family came from all over.”

Former Miami Herald staff writer Elinor J. Brecher contributed to this obituary.

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Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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