Its’ campus consisted of 16 small buildings in Miami Shores, Florida, with a student body of 1,750 when she became the president in 1981. By the time she retired in 2004, Barry University had become a 55-building multi-campus with 7,000 students and included a law school. That was the result of the phenomenal fundraising skills and academic vision of Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, an Adrian Dominican Sister.
On May 4, 1929, just before the crash of the stock market, Jeanne Marie O’Laughlin was born to Mary Margaret and Thomas O’Laughlin in Detroit, Michigan. While still a child, she would learn what doctors had told her mother on the occasion of Jeanne’s birth. Mary Margaret would never survive another pregnancy.The doctors were right. Five years later Sister O’Laughlin and her three siblings lost their mother when she once again conceived. This memory and that of growing up without a mother would affect some of the views that sometimes caused her to be called into question by the Church.
A streetcar ride when she was thirteen years old would leave another vivid memory that would shape her life. A black woman boarded the car with four small children. As the streetcar lurched forward, one of the children fell into Jeanne’s lap. Jeanne gladly held the child for the remainder of the ride. Later, a man exiting the car spit on Jeanne. That evening when telling her father of the incident, she asked him, “Dad, what causes prejudice?” “Ignorance,” he said. “How do you get rid of it,” she asked. He looked at her and said, “ Only through education”. She knew then what she would do with her life.
In 1958 she earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and biology at Siena Heights University. Then earned her masters and doctorate at the University of Arizona. She joined the board at Barry in 1973 while still assistant dean at St. Louis University; assuming the role of Barry’s president in 1981.
Sister Jeanne was dedicated to providing higher education and worked for greater access for all students. To that end she also served as chair of the Council of Independent Colleges; chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities; president of the Florida Association of Colleges and Universities; and chair of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.
Her involvement in the community went well beyond Barry University. Sister Jeanne held leadership roles in the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the Miami Coalition for a Drug-Free Community. She was the first woman to serve on the Orange Bowl Committee and the first woman to win the Chamber of Commerce’s Sand in My Shoes Award. She was deeply involved on behalf of the homeless and immigrant rights. As the first woman in the Non-Group, an influential behind-the-scenes group of community business men and civic leaders, she helped raise $7 million in private contributions for a fund to help small, black-owned businesses in riot-scarred Liberty City. After the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew, she was a key figure in We Will Rebuild, the volunteer recovery committee.
After her retirement Sister Jeanne returned to Michigan to the Motherhouse of the Adrian Dominican Sisters. Despite the fact she was battling recurrent cancer, she did not stop her service to others. She helped start the Share the Warmth Center for the homeless and acted as advisor to the Adrian Sisters for their fundraising.
She was 90 when she passed away at the Motherhouse of the Adrian Dominican Sisters.