Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, fifth president of Barry University, passes away

Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, fifth president of Barry University, passes away

MIAMI [June 18, 2019] — The Adrian Dominican Sisters and Barry University announced today that Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, OP, Ph.D., Barry’s former president, passed away at the age of 90 at the Dominican Sisters’ health care facility in Adrian, Mich.

Sister Jeanne, the University’s fifth president, served in that role from 1981-2004 — a 23-year tenure that, at the time, was one of the longest university presidencies in the nation.

During her 23-year term as president, the University grew from 1,750 students to more than 7,000. The University’s assets of property and buildings grew significantly. Upon retirement as president in 2004, Sister Jeanne served as chancellor of Barry University for five years, and in 2009 Sister Jeanne became president emerita.

A prominent figure in the South Florida community known for her compassion and grit, Sister Jeanne never hesitated to step in to help a community or individual in crisis. Early in her tenure, she worked with the Immigration and Naturalization Service offices to create a system to keep track of 300 Haitian immigrants released from the Krome Detention Center. In 1992, she intervened on behalf of three Chinese women who spent more than a year in a room at the Miami International Airport awaiting asylum for fear of political persecution.

Her commitment and dedication to the South Florida community was unwavering. Sister Jeanne was an active member of numerous civic and professional associations, including the Board of Directors of the Florida Association of Colleges and Universities, the Council of Independent Colleges, the Southeastern Florida Holocaust Memorial Center, and the Governor’s Constituency for Children — to name a few. She was also the first woman named to the Orange Bowl Committee and the Non-Group, an alliance of Miami-Dade business leaders.

Additionally, Sister Jeanne served as chair of the Victory Foundation for the Homeless, the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community, the Religious Task Force for We Will Rebuild (following Hurricane Andrew), and Miami’s Blue-Ribbon Aviation Panel. She also co-chaired Save the Children — an initiative to aid youth in nine Latin American countries.  In 1998, Sister Jeanne joined an ecumenical mission to Cuba, seeking to promote religious freedom following Pope John II’s historic visit to the island nation.

“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. 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,” said John Bussel, chair of Barry University’s Board of Trustees. 

Sister Linda Bevilacqua, OP, Ph.D., Barry’s current president and alumna said, “The Barry community mourns the loss of our beloved Sister Jeanne. 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 re-fashion 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.”

Numerous organizations honored Sister Jeanne. Her recognitions included: the Distinguished American Award from the Jack Harding Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame; The Miami Herald’s Charles Whited Spirit of Excellence Award; the United Way of Miami-Dade County’s Dorothy Shula Award for Voluntarism; the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s Sand in My Shoes Award (honoring the community’s top volunteer); and recognitions from the YWCA, the Mayor’s Economic Task Force 101, Miami Shores Chamber Commerce, and the Anti-Defamation League.

Raised in Detroit, Mich., by a widowed father whom she often referred to as “the anchor of her life,” Sister Jeanne joined the Dominican Sisters of Adrian at 16 and took her final vows at the age of 21. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Siena Heights College (now University) in Adrian and a master’s degree in biology and doctorate in educational administration from the University of Arizona. She was the executive assistant to the president of St. Louis University, where she was an associate professor of education and a member of the graduate faculty. Sister Jeanne also served as superintendent of the Adrian Dominican Independent School System in Michigan, Illinois and Florida.

Sister Jeanne never wavered in her love for Barry. Her faith and confidence in the University’s mission and future, which she alluded to when retiring in 2004, remained steadfast. “I think it all comes back to our mission. Our caring environment is what distinguishes Barry from all other universities,” Sister Jeanne said.

The prayer service and funeral Mass for Sister Jeanne will take place at the Motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Mich., on June 24 and 25. Barry University will plan a Memorial Service in Sister Jeanne’s honor for a future date.