Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin celebrates 80th birthday
Apr 30, 2009
April 30, 2009
Contact: Gladys Amador
Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin celebrates 80th birthday
Miami Shores, Fla. - Amid a shining light of birthday candles, the Barry University community celebrated yet another milestone of a beloved member of its family, as former president Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin turned 80 May 4th. The birthday party was held on Barry’s main campus in Miami Shores, inside the Landon events room.
Born May 4, 1929 in Detroit, Mich., O’Laughlin left a lasting impression on Barry University and the South Florida community following 23 successful years at the reigns. Upon her arrival in Miami Shores in 1981, she inherited a college with less than 2,000 students. By 2004, she stepped down as Barry’s fifth president, leaving the university with more than 9,000 students—making it the fourth largest private university in Florida. In 2005 she returned as chancellor.
From ballroom dancing to singing on a yacht, O’Laughlin was known for being a strong promoter and fundraiser. Under her leadership, Barry added 38 buildings, increased enrollment from 1,750 to 9,042, fundraised more than $200 million, increased the amount of academic schools from five to 10, and added 2,000 trees to its campuses. O’Laughlin—a survivor of lung cancer, has helped raise awareness and funds for the American Cancer Society and is on a mission to help create schools for women in other countries. When asked why she became a teacher, O’Laughlin sites an incident at the tender age of thirteen. Riding a streetcar in Detroit, Mich., she noticed a black woman enter the car with four small children. As the streetcar swayed, one of the children fell into her lap. She gladly held the child for the rest of the ride, but as one of the passengers disembarked, he passed by young Jeanne O’Laughlin and spit on her. Confused, she asked her father that evening why the man spit on her. “Prejudice,” he replied. “How do you stop that?” she asked. “Education,” he answered.
Sr. Jeanne has won numerous awards and accolades throughout the years, most notably the Sand in my Shoes Award given to the community’s top volunteer by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in 1999, The Charles Whited Spirit of Excellence Award given by The Miami Herald in 1993, and the Trail Blazer Award, presented by the Women’s Committee of One Hundred in 1988.
Some of these awards can be explained through her charm and charisma; while attending a dinner party on the yacht of one benefactor, she donned a boa and sang “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” on a bet. The benefactor paid off, and Barry’s bottom line grew by $1 million. Later, she took intensive lessons and learned to ballroom dance so she could perform during a competition, helping earn another $2 million for Barry.
In 1992, she was presented with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal by the late Pope John Paul II, for service to the Roman Catholic Church and has received honorary degrees from Holy Cross College, the University of Miami, Rollins College, and Lynn University.
A natural luminary, Sr. Jeanne rose to stardom, if you will, after several notable events in South Florida throughout her career as president. Some of these include Elian Gonzalez, three Chinese women seeking political asylum after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and a home-invasion robbery.
• At the request of the U.S. attorney general, O’Laughlin hosts a meeting between Elian Gonzalez and his visiting grandmothers, with more than 150 media representatives just outside her home. She questions the boy’s immediate return to Cuba, sparking a media blitz. The day after the meeting, she is interviewed by 16 media outlets, including morning broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC. The ABC interview, conducted by Diane Sawyer, lasted almost seven minutes live. Other interviews that day include BBC, FOX, People Magazine, all South Florida local affiliates, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald. Within a week, she had penned an op-ed piece that appeared in the New York Times. Over the months, Barry University would receive thousands of media requests. Eventually, she would appear live on the Larry King Show, the O’Reilly Factor, CNN, and the morning news shows many times again. As late as June 28—five months later, as the boy was to be returned to Cuba—she had requests to be interviewed by ABC, CNN, FOX, NBC, and the New York Times, among dozens of others.
• It took the massacre at Tiananmen Square to bring together the lives of three Chinese women. It took only one caring nun to ensure that those women would find freedom in America. O’Laughlin, in her 11th year as president of Barry University in 1992, came to the aid of Shu Zhen Qiu, Jing Feng Chen and Ai Hua Situ—each of them in their mid-20s—after fleeing China out of fear of political persecution. Their “crimes?” They had assisted students who were involved in that country’s infamous democracy movement. That was in the fall of 1991. The trio then found themselves detained for almost 14 months in a Miami International Airport hotel room after flying into South Florida from Bolivia aboard a Paraguayan airline. They had sought political asylum, yet were denied it almost immediately. When the trio of newfound friends landed in Miami, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service held them at the airport’s hotel, as a lengthy appeal began its process. Enter Sr. Jeanne. For much of the next 14 months, she became a part of the trio’s lives, from offering to take them into her home while the appeal was ongoing (that request was denied) to visiting them at their hotel frequently with some Chinese students from Barry who would teach the three ladies English. Through it all, O’Laughlin took up the battle with politicians from Miami to Washington, D.C., including U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fla. And U.S. Attorney General William Barr. It wasn’t until the first of October, 1992, that O’Laughlin could rest—the INS had finally dropped its opposition to asylum. “I’m so happy,” she exclaimed, running down the hotel hall while picking up the women. “Get your stuff… and let’s get out of Dodge!”
• A burglar breaks into Sr. Jeanne’s home, located just a few blocks from Barry University’s campus in Miami Shores. She suffers a broken facial bone, broken nose and black eyes in the attack. A news station interviews her in the hospital following surgery. She lifts off the bed, holds up one fist, manages a smile, and states, “Miami is for me.” This statement, mirroring a public relations campaign to improve the city’s image in the early 1980s, endears her to the community, and established her as a media star.