Local Obituaries

Lawyer Edna Shalala, mother of University of Miami president, dies at 103

FITNESS BUFF: In a February 2008 photo Edna Shalala, then 96, ran through a series of water exercises in her pool in Coral Gables. Fitness was a lifelong passion for Shalala. She was an Ohio tennis champ and won an 80-and-over national championship.
FITNESS BUFF: In a February 2008 photo Edna Shalala, then 96, ran through a series of water exercises in her pool in Coral Gables. Fitness was a lifelong passion for Shalala. She was an Ohio tennis champ and won an 80-and-over national championship. Miami Herald file

That the University of Miami plans to host its first annual Edna C. Shalala 5K Run/Walk in honor of school president Donna Shalala’s mother is hardly a surprise.

Edna Shalala, who died Tuesday at 103 in Miami, was a health and wellness champion who, at 96, proudly told the Miami Herald, “I do everything a young person does — classes, lectures, water exercises, yoga.”

Sure enough, Shalala was a fixture at the school’s Herbert Wellness Center and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She seldom, if ever, missed a UM baseball game, and she won an 80-and-over championship on the senior amateur tennis circuit. She was inducted into the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.

“I didn’t beat her at tennis until she was 70,” Donna Shalala once joked in a 2002 Miami Herald food section feature in which mother and daughter detailed the making of their Lebanese cracked-wheat salad inside their Coral Gables kitchen. Then 90, Edna Shalala was still practicing law and just about to retire from the field.

“Mother was way ahead of her time and an inspiration to all of us,” said her daughter, Diane Shalala Fritel. “She went to Ohio State during the height of the Depression, 1929-1933, and worked three jobs. After teaching for 15 years, she decided to go to law school. When she passed the bar in 1952, at age 41, she said she wanted to practice law for 50 years —and she did, retiring at 91. She was amazing!”

Indeed, Diane’s twin, Donna, who became UM president in 2001 after serving for eight years as secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration, was often spotted at campus events with her active mom. For a Miami Herald Mother’s Day feature in 2011, Shalala said of her mother’s role in her life: “An avid tennis player, she would tell me to always keep my eye on the ball. She repeated it often and not always on the tennis court.”

That focus, Shalala said, helped her guide the university, and she would impart that wisdom to UM students.

“We within the university community are saddened by the loss of a true icon. She led a tremendous life and was supportive of so many elements of our community. Her vibrancy at age 103 was an inspiration to all who knew her,” said Stuart A. Miller, chairman of the UM Board of Trustees.

“This is a sad day for everybody,” said UM head baseball coach Jim Morris. “I saw her at the park all the time. Always saw her walk up the steps and sit behind home plate. She loved baseball and was very vocal about that. Dr. Shalala, too, was at many games, but she had a scouting report from her mom if she weren’t here.”

Born Edna Smith on Oct. 13, 1911, in Cleveland, six months before the sinking of the Titanic, Shalala was a physical education major and an Ohio State Buckeye, Class of 1933 graduate. She was one of the first Arab-American graduates of the university. She worked four jobs to put herself through school: tennis instructor, cloakroom attendant, nanny and restaurant worker.

After graduation, she was a physical education teacher and married James Abraham Shalala in 1939 — postponing her honeymoon a bit so she could drive to New York to compete in tennis nationals. Two years later, the couple had twin daughters, Donna and Diane.

When Shalala passed the bar in 1952 she became the first female attorney of Syrian-Lebanese heritage to practice law in Cleveland. Shalala and her law partner practiced probate law, and after her partner died in 1968, she continued the practice until 2002 — despite having a stroke in 1996 that left her with a slight limp. Tennis was out, golf was in.

Said Shalala, “I can’t just sit around the house.”

In addition to her daughters, Shalala is survived by her sister Louise McGann of Cleveland, 16 grandchildren and great-grandchildren between them. Services will be private and held in Cleveland.

The Edna C. Shalala Fund for Women’s Athletics, created to honor her on her 100th birthday, helps fund women’s athletic teams at UM. The inaugural Edna C. Shalala U5K Run/Walk, to be held on UM’s Coral Gables campus Dec. 13, will benefit that fund.

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