Decisive Decade: Sister Mary Lea Marks 10 Years at Stritch Helm

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:30:00 AM

By Sara Woelfel and Linda Steiner

Thumbing through her collection of palm-sized appointment calendars, Stritch President Sister Mary Lea Schneider, OSF, Ph.D., could not help but chuckle at the scribbles, hurried handwriting and chaos that mark each page.

“I’ve kept all my calendars from the last 10 years,” she said, gesturing to a cabinet behind her massive oak desk. “And I think when I get out of office – you know how people have mortgage-burning parties? I’m going to have a calendar-burning party.”

Since 1991, Sister Mary Lea – or just “Sister,” as she is affectionately known around campus – has recorded all the appointments, meetings and special events that have brought progress and celebration to Cardinal Stritch University. Each calendar page details the day-to-day evolution of the institution. Included are the move to university status, technology acquisitions, establishment of the first doctoral degree, new academic offerings, revamped opening convocations, annual commencements, construction and renovation projects, major grant proposals, and marketing strategies.

Yet the calendars tell only half the tale. Equally important to the story of her decade as head of the second-largest independent university in Wisconsin is the personality that fired her accomplishments and makes her who she is. Everyone who knows Sister Mary Lea readily agrees, this woman is truly one of a kind.

“Sometimes people have to search for signs of a leader’s presence,” said the Rev. Dr. Trinette McCray, campus minister and director of Multicultural Relations. “You’ll never have to search for the signs of Sister Mary Lea having been here. The very character of this institution reflects her.”

And just who is Sister Mary Lea Schneider? She’s intelligent and well-read, with a great sense of humor. She’s a passionate Franciscan with more than a tinge of irreverence in her soul. She’s dedicated, principled and a real go-getter – whether negotiating with the Board of Trustees for a University project or chasing pesky geese off the Stritch soccer field. She knows what’s appropriate and understands formality, yet she loves spontaneity and down-to-earth reality.

First and foremost, she is a people person.

“She always has time for people, which may be different from leaders on another campus,”  said Dr. Marna Boyle, vice president for Academic Affairs. “That’s what’s important to her – people.”

While other college presidents may espouse an open-door policy, Sister Mary Lea maintains an office right beside the front door and keeps her office door open – literally – to an array of impromptu visitors.

“I can pop in, and she’ll say ‘Come right in,’” Boyle said. “I don’t need an appointment. At other places, there would be a two-week wait to see the president.”

“She is not unwilling to conduct business in informal ways, in any place, with anyone,” said David Wegener, director of Admissions. “She’s not full of the pomp and circumstance of most presidents.”

She eats lunch with staff and faculty in the cafeteria, she talks with students or staff in the hallways, calling out to many of them by name; and when the Senior Send-Off soccer game is being played, she’s right in there with the best of them. The point is, when someone has a suggestion or wants to voice a concern — virtually wherever that may be – Sister Mary Lea makes herself available.

“I’ll listen to anybody,” she said. “And I’ve gotten a lot of ideas. Some we’ve followed through on; some we haven’t.”

“She is flexible enough to take advice from people assembled around her, and that’s the mark of a good leader,” said Ed Cichurski, former head of Stritch’s Board of Trustees.

James Donnelly, current chair, said Sister Mary Lea is energetic, stays on top of things and has a good sense of direction.

“She generally pushes for new initiatives pretty hard, and sometimes that tends to conflict with finances. We’ve had a number of interesting discussions that always end up getting resolved amicably,” Donnelly said with a laugh. “But she’s sensitive to listening to counsel from the board, and she stresses what’s good for the institution. There has been accommodation both ways.

“She’s very bright, a good strategic thinker, and she’s also fun to work with – which is great as opposed to someone who’s very competent and bland.”

Sister Doris Pehowski, OSF, who was the director of the congregation when Sister Mary Lea was hired and who suggested that she apply for the job, said she was confident that those kinds of qualities made Mary Lea the right choice.

“She was very outgoing, she makes things happen, involves other people in decision-making and has a very broad view of University needs. I knew she had the savvy to work well with people – both men and women,” Sister Doris said. “I’ve been very grateful for her leadership. I can’t believe 10 years has passed. The time has gone so quickly, and she’s done so much. She is good for Stritch and she has won the University many friends.”

From Illinois to Milwaukee

Growing up in the small town of Cherry, Ill., young Mary Lea Schneider loved books and aspired to become a teacher or a librarian. But a visit to Milwaukee at the end of her junior year of high school, when she visited an aunt at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, led her down a different path.

“I just felt like I had come home,” she said, recalling her visit. “There was something there about the grounds, the Sisters, the buildings … . I couldn’t have told you at the time what it was about the congregation. I just liked the atmosphere and felt God was calling me to this community.”

She entered the congregation in 1960 and enrolled at Cardinal Stritch College as an English major. But three years later, she no longer was sure she wanted to remain a Sister and left the congregation. She transferred to Marquette University, where she pursued her bachelor’s degree in theology, a major not then offered at Stritch, and later earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Marquette.

In 1971, she fulfilled her life-long goal of becoming a teacher when she was hired by the Religious Studies Department at Michigan State University. She rose through the professorial ranks and eventually became the department chair. Six years into her tenure, however, Sister Mary Lea felt a need to return to the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi – after 14 years on her own.

“It was God’s call,” she said. “It was time. Whatever it was that God wanted me to do and to learn and to become, I guess I did in these 14 years away.”

In 1990, with the pending retirement of Stritch’s fourth president, Sister M. Camille Kliebhan, OSF, Ph.D., Sister Mary Lea applied and interviewed for the position. “I knew she had the qualifications; I’d known her since she entered the (Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi) community,” Sister Doris said. She especially liked Sister Mary Lea’s prior experience at a public university, where she had learned about administration and politics.

“She has a force of personality to carry ideas forward,” said Dr. Linda Plagman, former head of the Arts and Sciences division. “I remember in her interviews (for the position of president) she was forceful, confident and visionary … . She brought excitement, energy, vision – a dynamic vision, a vision of growth. She was able to carry that through, to make it happen.”

Stritch’s Board of Trustees recommended Sister Mary Lea to the OSF administrative team, and they accepted the recommendation. She left Michigan State after 20 years there. On Aug. 1, 1991, she assumed her new responsibilities at Stritch.

Leading the way to change

“In my mind, I thought I would give it 10 years,” Sister Mary Lea said, remembering back to 1991. But now 10 years have passed and she’s not done yet.

Although she started working on her strategic agenda virtually from the day she walked through Stritch’s doors, one year she remembers vividly was 1997. In that year, Stritch became a university and changed its structure to four academic colleges; the first doctoral degree – the Doctorate of Education in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service – was approved; the new Center for Communication Studies/Fine Arts was completed and dedicated; and a Master of Science degree in nursing and the Franciscan Center were established.

“I think 1997 was a watershed year,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Everything happened in 1997. The culmination of many years of work, with input from many people, all came together.”

Donnelly cited university status and the new CFA building as two major moves forward for Stritch and said both were indicators of Sister’s ardent advocacy for progress.

“Her style of leadership was driving,” said Cichurski, who headed the board from 1995-97. “She drove the point, drove the concepts, drove the goals and worked to achieve them.”

Vice president for operations and facilities Bob Anderson, who shepherded construction of the Communication Studies/Fine Arts building, said one of Sister Mary Lea’s greatest strengths was in her willingness to give people room to work.

“She tells you to go ahead and do it, and she lets you do it,” Anderson said. “She’s not the kind of person who looks down your neck all the time. And I like that about a boss. It’s a tremendous attribute.”

Dr. Peter Jonas, head of Stritch’s doctoral program, agreed. Sister Mary Lea was a firm backer of establishing a doctorate – being one of a very few universities in Wisconsin and the only Franciscan institution in North America to do so. But she left the details to others. She delegates and she supports, Jonas said, qualities that make for efficiency and good collaboration.

And Sister herself credits the initial idea for university status to two faculty members, Dr. Jim and Mary “Duffy” Kasum. Although as president, she ultimately was responsible for the final recommendation to the Board, Sister Mary Lea is the kind of person who is loathe to withhold credit where credit is due.

“Being a leader really means surrounding yourself with good people – then letting them do what they do best,” she said. “And lord knows, I certainly don’t have all the answers!”

Beyond the landmark accomplishments of 1997, the past 10 years have brought many other achievements, including the addition of four new undergraduate and six graduate programs; a foray into distance-learning that has produced, among other things, more than 40 computer-assisted course offerings; an expansion of the non-traditional accelerated program format from one college into all four; and a quadrupling in endowment figures.

“I think that one of the things I have is an entrepreneurial spirit,” Sister Mary Lea said. “And I think that the institution as a whole has an entrepreneurial spirit … . We’ve been flexible and, as I look around the country, that spirit of flexibility and willingness to look at different options is what’s keeping some institutions vibrant. And the lack of that spirit, the lack of the ability to envision beyond the present and to envision change, to embrace change when necessary, is what’s going to kill off a lot of private institutions … . But we’ve always changed while maintaining our academic excellence, and that’s what will help us continue to thrive.”

On a variety of occasions during her tenure, Sister Mary Lea has played host to dignitaries and celebrities including former Gov. Tommy Thompson, presidential candidate Bob Dole and stage and screen star Elaine Stritch – with whom she has developed a friendship. Part of the closeness is undoubtedly the result of the genuine warmth and hospitality Sister Mary Lea showed not only to the actress, a distant cousin of Stritch namesake Samuel Cardinal Stritch, but also to several members of Stritch’s family whom she invited to Milwaukee to share in Stritch’s 1999 commencement celebration. Sister Mary Lea personally went out of her way to make sure the family members received copies of photographs, Stritch sweatshirts and memorabilia. And she has kept in touch with all of them from time to time since the graduation weekend.

On the construction front during Sister Mary Lea’s tenure, Stritch has seen renovations to Serra, Duns Scotus and Bonaventure halls. Stritch’s annual opening convocation and honors day ceremonies were refashioned, and just last year a new School of Visual and Performing Arts was established. With all of this progress has come an increase in overall student enrollment, including a tripling in the number of international students and an increasingly diverse student body.

Improvements in diversity, technology

When Sister Mary Lea started at Stritch, students of color made up about 7% of the campus population. Now that is about double. Much is the result of Sister Mary Lea carrying out plans that were in place and setting a personal example, McCray said.

“There’s a Biblical phrase from Esther, ‘She came to the kingdom for such a time as this.’ It was a time when we needed someone who really embodied and understood the need for an institution of higher education to take seriously the responsibility for inclusivity, multiculturalism and diversity. And she came in with that as her own agenda ... . This is not to say we have arrived at where we need to be. But Sister Mary Lea does communicate the sincerity and genuineness of our commitment to move forward.”

McCray noted that, among her accomplishments, Sister Mary Lea has been very supportive of flexibility concerning holidays for various faiths, for funding multicultural activities such as the Gospel Choir and the Multicultural Peer Liaison program and for many important educational partnerships that reach into ethnically diverse communities. Those include the “Grow Your Own” teachers program in conjunction with Pulaski High School, a mentoring program involving African-American young women at Stritch and Shorewood High School, and Lifetime Learners, which grants associate’s degrees in business to residents of some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods.

“She makes multiculturalism on this campus not a trendy idea, but a real ministry of reconciliation,” McCray said.

Although Sister Mary Lea is pleased that student diversity has improved, she is not so happy with the status of the faculty. “We need to find ways to diversify our faculty, particularly as the University’s student population continues to grow more diverse. Our faculty are excellent, but we need more voices of diversity among them,” she said.

Technology is another area in which Sister Mary Lea cites gains. Since 1991, Stritch has invested in technology to give greater computer access to students, faculty and staff. An on-site distance-learning classroom was added, a sophisticated satellite system acquired, an automated phone system installed, the academic computing area overhauled, and a University Web site created. Just this year, Sister Mary Lea established a new position on her Administrative Board, a vice president to oversee planning, assessment and technology.

But she admits with her typical honesty that, in many ways, Stritch still falls short.

“Technology is a black hole,” she said bluntly. “You know we talk about how we struggle to bring ourselves up to speed technologically, but every meeting I’ve gone to, everybody’s in the same boat, and everybody’s saying the same thing. Every institution. Every president feels like they’re behind the eight-ball. So in some ways we are behind, and in some ways we’re gaining.”

Emphasis on Franciscan values

Despite changes needed to keep up with an ever-changing outside world, one area in which Sister Mary Lea has clung steadfastly to tradition is maintaining Stritch’s Franciscan values. As she stated firmly in a campuswide forum in November 1998, “We are not Jesuits. We are not Dominicans. We are Franciscans ... . Our mission is to transform lives. We do this through value-centered education. This is our business.”  She had thousands of business cards printed bearing the latter three lines of her message and distributed them around campus.

“She has really brought the Franciscan values into visible practice,” said Sister Doris. “Not that we didn’t have them before... but Sister Mary Lea has made them available – almost mandatory – for everybody who works there. She has involved the students, too. I’ve been impressed talking with students, how they can articulate what the values are.”

The Franciscan identity is one of the things that makes Stritch unique and adds to its appeal, Sister Mary Lea said. “The Stritch experience is one that students and graduates would acknowledge as being different,” she said. “That’s critically important. I think it’s a strength that we know who we are and want to continue to deepen that mission and identity ... . It’s timely historically, in that it coincides with diminishing numbers of Sisters being present in the institutions. And it’s probably the work of the Spirit.”

A big step in the process of building Franciscan awareness came with the establishment of the Franciscan Center, a national resource center and library for Franciscan studies located in the library on the main campus. Since 1991, Sister Mary Lea also has supported many opportunities for members of the Stritch community to learn about the Franciscan tradition, including a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy, the birthplace of St. Francis. For the past three years, Stritch has sent faculty, staff and administrators on the pilgrimage. Funds from a recently acquired $328,000 Teagle Grant will help create even more opportunities to integrate Franciscan values and the Franciscan intellectual tradition into the life of the University.

Her primary interest is students

Despite the many significant events and historical moments during her Stritch presidency, Sister Mary Lea will say, without hesitation, that her favorite memories are of the commencement ceremonies.

“I’m always moved by commencements,” she said. “I’m thrilled at the accomplishments of our graduates at every level. It’s just a wonderful, celebratory time … .  And these are so meaningful to our students, their family and friends.”

But by the time students don their caps and gowns and walk across the stage to shake Sister Mary Lea’s hand, many have come to know her in a more personal way. She takes a genuine interest in students’ achievements, whether on the basketball court, on the stage, or in the classroom, and she doesn’t hold her emotions in check.

“She attends (theatre productions) on a regular basis unless she’s out of town, and she always makes a point of congratulating the students after the show, telling them she enjoyed the show,” said David Oswald, chair of the Theatre Arts department.

“I recall the very first offering in the new theater,” Sister Mary Lea said. “It was ‘The Sound of Music.’ I  stood in the back for portions of just about every performance. I recall having tears in my eyes, looking at the way in which the audience reacted to the play and reflecting on the beauty of the new facility and how we were able to bring an aesthetic experience of grace and beauty to the audience.”

Jeff Kreiling of Mendota, Ill., a basketball player and elementary education major, said he became accustomed to seeing Sister Mary Lea in the stands at home games. Students appreciate that. “It shows us the school’s behind us – she represents the school. And she gets kinda’ crazy in the stands; she’s one of the loudest fans! But it’s really great to have that support.

“One time in warm-ups we were in the middle of the court, and she was right behind me in line, in her sweats, giving everybody high-fives – it was really cool, really great! I went to another school my first year, and the president was nothing like this. She’s just very personable.”

Sister Mary Lea appreciates the benefits traditional-age students can gain from being involved in extracurricular activities, and she encourages it. Five new sports teams, several new campus organizations, more opportunities for travel, and new partnerships with foreign universities have been added in the past 10 years as ways to expand choices for students and add to Stritch’s appeal.

“Anything they become involved in, whether it’s volunteerism or sports, theater, music, art, we need to encourage it, not discourage it,” Sister Mary Lea said. “Done properly, their participation shouldn’t take away from their studies. In fact, I’ve always had this saying, ‘Don’t let your education get in the way of your learning.’ And I think for all of us in life, a great portion of our learning takes place apart from formal education settings such as a classroom.”

And if a student really needs help, Sister Mary Lea is there.

“She was always open enough to allow students to talk to her,” said former dean of students Dr. Bob Abene, who was Sister’s first Administrative Board hire and who worked with her from 1991-99. “She was never a distant president.” He pointed to a situation with an international student, Aleksander Balos, as an example of Sister Mary Lea’s exceptional caring – and getting results.

Balos, ’95, of Poland, had inadvertently failed to provide a letter to the INS verifying that Stritch approved of his working off campus part time, a requirement for foreign students. The glitch resulted in the deportation notice, which produced panic, then a sense that there was no way out. Enter Sister Mary Lea.

“She called me to her office. It was the first time I really had a chance to speak with her, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Balos said. “I felt doomed, but she just kept saying, ‘Don’t give up, don’t worry, we will do everything we can to help you.’ She was really sincerely concerned; she was this sincere, kind and generous person who would do all that she can to keep me in school.”

Sister Mary Lea contacted a law firm, got all Balos’ professors to write letters to the INS on his behalf; the professors, in turn, enlisted students to write, and Sister wrote a letter herself. She also enlisted the help of a former trustee and friend, Rita McDonald.

“And we succeeded. I was reinstated as a student,” Balos said. “It was ruled an honest mistake, not malicious. I was so grateful.”

“She will go to the mat on issues of justice and fairness,” Boyle said. “At times, she has even challenged school policies when she thought they were too rigidly imposed against certain students.”

“She really makes a big effort to talk to students about what bothers them, which I think is very important to chart the course for the University,” said Marcin Bolec, ’98, of Boston, Mass., a former student government president.

Not a ‘typical nun’?

While Sister Mary Lea has impressed people with her vision and confidence and won them over with her kind and compassionate heart, she also surprises some of them with her informal dress, her interests and ready sense of humor.

“It was the middle of the afternoon, and in walks a woman in blue jeans with a rip in the knee and a Michigan State T-shirt splattered with paint,” said Judith Cairns, a secretary in the College of Education, remembering with a smile her first encounter with Sister Mary Lea. “When I told her Sister Gabrielle (Kowalski, OSF, Ph.D.) was out of the office, I asked who she was. She said, ‘I’m Sister Mary Lea, the new president, incognito.’”

One day, Sister Mary Lea may wear a business suit and heels and the next day show up in a sweatshirt, jeans and cowboy boots.

“I remember the day she got a new pair of cowboy boots,” Plagman said. “She was so proud. She came tromping down the hall, and I mean she was tromping. By the end of the day her feet were sore.”

“She doesn’t always cut the image of a college president, but that’s what makes her unique,” said Sister Doris. “She is human. It’s the way she expresses herself (If she knows you at all, she’s probably called you “Kiddo”— regardless of your age), her love of wearing comfortable clothes – she always looks nice at college events, but I laugh when I see her all dressed up. I know she can’t wait to get home and change into jeans or something more comfortable!”

People often remark that Sister Mary Lea’s interests are not what they would expect from a Sister, especially her avid enthusiasm for the Green Bay Packers, no-frills fishing trips to Northern Wisconsin and watching popular TV shows.

“I think in a lot of circumstances, people are surprised, and I think that’s because a lot of people carry around stereotypes,” Sister Mary Lea said. “They say, ‘You’re not the typical nun.’ Well who is? I don’t know any ‘typical nuns.’ I know a lot of people who are Sisters, and every one is different … . I think that people don’t expect to see us out in boats fishing. I don’t think that they expect sometimes that we have a full life, that we go on vacations, that we do all kinds of things.”

It’s probably those unexpected things about Sister Mary Lea that make her so accessible, approachable and beloved by the Stritch community. Sports Information Director John Pfaffl laughs when remembering his involvement in a student fund-raising project in which people voted with their dollars on who would have to wear a costume for part of a day and distribute treats around campus. Pfaffl and Sister Mary Lea were the unlucky winners. He was Superman and she was a cow, complete with a bright pink udder.

"Although the experience was quite embarrassing (especially since my Superman costume was on the small side), I knew it was for a great cause,” Pfaffl said. “Sister Mary Lea and I had a blast, and we gave the Stritch community a good laugh!"

More in line with what people might expect from a Sister, Sister Mary Lea also confesses a love for reading and books – as evidenced by the hundreds of volumes lining her office at Stritch and the fact that she reads three newspapers daily, even on fishing trips – and her penchant for travel. She has visited China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. In the latter nation, where administrators attempted to assess the market for offering Stritch MBAs, Sister Mary Lea became somewhat of a shop-aholic after the business meetings ended each day, according to Marlene Lauwasser, a vice president for marketing for the College of Business and Management, who also was on the trip.

“She bought 16 collapsible suitcases as gifts, and then she filled them with other gifts,” Lauwasser said with a laugh. “But she really didn’t get much for herself – just for everybody else. It’s so typical of her.”

Someday Sister would like to visit Assisi, but she feels it’s more important to enable the Stritch faculty and staff to make their pilgrimages there before she does.

Vision continues

“She’s a great visionary and sees what’s ahead and knows how to position Stritch,” Bolec said.

Sister Mary Lea still has a laundry list of things she would like to do before leaving office. She said she will continue to work on increasing diversity, keeping up to date with technology, building Stritch’s online presence, and growing the endowment. Also, she will continue to push for one of her pet priorities – moving some business programs to Asia. And there’s a lot of other business to which she would like to attend.

“I’d like to certainly see us through the next North Central accreditation visit in 2004,” Sister Mary Lea said. “And I’d like to see us do a successful capital campaign and some more building projects. And I’d like to see us through the Teagle Grant on the Franciscan mission and identity.

“I’d like to leave the institution in a strong position. And that means leaving an institution that is fiscally sound, an institution that knows its identity as a Franciscan institution and owns it and lives it and continues to focus on academic excellence and a real quality of hospitality and service. And it has the brand recognition in Wisconsin and the Midwest for precisely those things. (pause) And then I’ll go fishing.”

Additional stories and reflections about Sister Mary Lea:


The Rev. Dr. Trinette McCray, campus minister and director of Multicultural Relations

“She is real. She doesn’t carry any need to have big ‘I’s’ and little ‘you’s.’ There’s no sense of smallness with Mary Lea. In fact, the smaller you are, the closer she’ll probably come to you. She doesn’t need status to be affirmed. You gotta love her.”

Dr. David E. Roberts, Sister Mary Lea’s former MSU student

“I met Sister Mary Lea Schneider while studying for my bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University in 1987. She taught a course on American Civil Religion that started at the far-too-early time of 8 o’clock in the morning. This meant that many students, including myself, were not at their best. At one of the first classes, Professor Schneider was discussing how the United States, like  religions, has hymns and creeds – a fact which she demonstrated by singing ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ at the top of her lungs. We all woke up very quickly! This demonstrated two things to me about her. She works very hard to get the students interested in religion, and that religion is a very important fact of life even for those who may not consider themselves ‘religious.’ Thanks to her, I have been very interested in religion ever since and am still convinced about the importance of religion in daily living. For these gifts, and others, I am very grateful to Sister Mary Lea Schneider and the influence she has had on my life.”

Dr. Rolf Wegenke, president, Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (WAICU)

“Sister Mary Lea is just completing her fourth year as chair of WAICU. Her unanimous election by 20 other college and university presidents who compose the WAICU Board is a sign of their respect and confidence in her leadership abilities. Some leaders put peace above everything else. They want to get along by going along. Sister Mary Lea puts progress first. She wants – no, she demands – results, and she gets them. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson once referred to Sister Mary Lea as “the Brett Favre of higher education.” I would assert that it is more accurate to say “Brett Favre is the Sister Mary Lea Schneider of football. Cardinal Stritch University and all of higher education are better because of her strong leadership.”

Larisa Ard, director of Alumni and Parent Relations

“I met a College of Business and Management alumnus in Minnesota who passionately bragged about Stritch. I was so impressed that a middle-aged man so separated from the traditional definition of a college experience could show such school spirit and pride. I said, ‘I have to ask. What has caused you to be so devoted to the University?’ Without hesitation, he said, ‘Sister Mary Lea.’ When I relayed the story to her, Sister blushed at the praise and with a laugh said, ‘Tell him I'm already taken!’”

Dr. Marna Boyle, vice president for academic affairs

“Sister Mary Lea was very moved after reading ‘Flags of our Fathers,’ a book about unsung heroes. Shortly after reading it, there was an incident in the residence hall involving some of our students. For what they did, they should have been thrown out of school. But Sister Mary Lea decided to make a lesson for these young students. She said she would lift part of their punishment if they would read ‘Flags of our Fathers.’ She bought them each copies and, when they finished reading, met with them privately in her office. She thought that lesson about unsung heroes would have a far greater effect on their lives and would make them better citizens and parents to their kids someday.”

Denny Fox, Athletic director

“We always look forward to seeing her stroll through the door (at games) with her western hat and Stritch sweatshirt on, coming in to support our team. And she lets loose. She hollers at the refs. We really appreciate her support with the refs, then I don’t have to get on them that much if I know that she’s doing it, too!”

Patricia Ouellette, administrator/campaign coordinator for the Office of Advancement

“There is one story. It took place at the VIP dinner following my back surgery. I was staffing the reception table outside Cardinal Lounge. All of a sudden Sister disappeared from the receiving line and the next thing I knew she was coming toward me with a chair from her office. That is the vision I carry of her to this day. Talk about the perfect Franciscan hostess! Washing the feet of her ‘disciples’ in such an experience really reflects her love for Christ.”

Ruth Coleman, recipient of an honorary doctorate in May 1999 and a longtime friend of Stritch

“Cardinal Stritch University is really blessed to have a leader the caliber of Sister Mary Lea Schneider. Her vision for the future and her goals in preparing for it are shaped by her deep understanding of the nature and purpose of higher education. She communicates her ideas clearly and concisely, and one always knows where she stands on issues. I admire and appreciate her concern and honesty and her commitment to serving the needs of every student. She is one great president.”

Dr. Robert M. Abene, dean of students and vice president for Student Development from 1991-99

Abene was Sister Mary Lea’s first hire and a person about whom she wept when he told her he was leaving to become president of Marian College in Indianapolis. “I said ‘I’m sorry!’ and she said ‘Don’t be sorry, isn’t it better that I cried than cheered, Yay, he’s leaving!’ That’s the way she is … .I always found her to be very warm, very down to earth, and a very caring president, as well as a very bright individual.”

Bishop Richard Sklba

“Sister Mary Lea Schneider’s unique combination of a strong Catholic theological background with the responsibilities of university administration has been a great grace for Cardinal Stritch University and the greater Milwaukee community over these past 10 years. I join in offering a word of thanks for the work of the past decade and a prayer for God’s blessings on all of her challenges in the future.”

Nancy Kendall, a 1987 graduate with a BA in history and a former member of the Stritch Board of Trustees

“Florida residents, alums and special friends have welcomed her breaking into the winter scene for two years in a row to keep us in touch with Stritch’s developments and to strengthen ties with the University … . She’s really kind of an all-American girl who happens to be a very good Franciscan. She’s very good company!”

James Donnelly, chair of the Board of Trustees

“She’s a real-world person. ‘Blue collar’ has a certain negative connotation, but not for me. Sister Mary Lea has enough of those roots so that she certainly understands the common man … . She could hold her own in business. She’s very good, she’s thorough, she does her homework, and she has a good sense of how to deal with a lot of different people.”

Sister Corde Rea, OSF, Sister Mary Lea’s fishing buddy

“She’s an expert at cleaning fish, and she’s most generous sharing the catch with friends. She likes to pick wild blackberries; she gets all scratched and bitten up, and she gives those away, too! She’s just generous of spirit – that’s Mary Lea!”

Dr. Linda Plagman, former head of the arts and sciences division

“There are so many different sides to her. Her spiritual side. She has a very tender side that I don’t think she lets a lot of people see. She’s a philosophical person, but very much a pragmatist and she will do anything to help Stritch become a great school.”

Sister Doris Pehowski, OSF, director of the congregation when Sister Mary Lea was named president:

“Francis is as relevant today as he was in his own time, and Mary Lea has really made the values come alive at Stritch. She’s bold in her expression of what is needed … . She has done wonderful work, and I’m very proud of what she had done ... . She’s very knowledgeable about higher education, and politics. She networks; she knows what’s going on with the church And she’s very involved in our religious community … . Everybody in the community knows Mary Lea!"

David Oswald, chair of the Theatre Department

“I know how busy she is. That she makes time for us (by attending arts events) is key. And it’s key to the students. She knows the students are why we’re here.”

Aleksander Balos, ’95, a Polish native who almost was deported because of a technical glitch. Sister Mary Lea’s involvement helped resolve the situation.

“She was just the pillar of my hope. I didn’t have faith in anything. She was so available to me, so down to earth. She’s incredible. She made a huge impression on me.”