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Eulogy for Mary Bruemmer

February 26, 2022

Our university has a storied history. It is one of the oldest, largest, and most successful Catholic universities in the country. It became a great university because of all of the Billikens who have made it so. Now in its third century, Saint Louis University continues to serve the greater good, particularly through the Billikens who pass through our arches at commencement each year.

They go on to make an impact in the communities in which they work and live.

Among the tens of thousands of Billikens shaping the world, there was one who stood above the rest. One who was unparalleled in her devotion to SLU. One whose very name evokes universal reverence. Mary Bruemmer.

I realized this early in my presidency. When a person joins an organization as a new president, the number of names one hears and people one meets is nearly overwhelming. I could easily detect, however, that when people spoke about this Mary person it was different. When they spoke about her, it was always with admiration. And when I met her, I understood.

One of my fondest memories is the very first time I walked over to meet the Oriflamme team, just prior to fall move-in. I met Mary at her office, and we walked over together. I was immediately struck by the pace Mary set. Here was a woman more than 30 years my senior and walking with a cane, setting a pace that was considerably more accelerated than my normal gait. One might observe that I cover a bit more ground with each step than she did — but she still outpaced me. I remember suggesting that perhaps we might slow down a bit. No way. Mary was, as usual, on a mission.

When we arrived at the Wool Ballroom, the reception we received from those students was something to behold — the applause, the shouts, the joy. It was all for my companion, who was old enough to be their great grandmother. The members of Oriflamme adored her, and she adored them.

As you have heard, Mary first came to Saint Louis University in 1938 as a freshman. 1938! At the time only five percent of our students were women. Try to imagine what the world, and this university, were like for young women at that time. This detail says a lot: Earning straight A’s, Mary double majored in history and English. But she entered and graduated from the School of Education and Social Sciences, because women were not permitted to register in the College of Arts and Sciences. Hard to fathom in 2022.

After graduating, Mary worked in a variety of roles, returning to SLU in 1956 as a member of the staff, earning her master’s degree in 1960. During her long career she served as the dean of women, dean of student affairs, and assistant to the vice president for development. After “retiring” on her second try in 1990, Mary remained an abiding presence as a full-time volunteer out of her office in DuBourg Hall. It was not until 2016, at the age of 96, that she truly retired from full-time work for SLU.

We had a party to mark that moment in July 2016. At that celebration I noted that SLU will never lack her presence. Her years of dedicated service, love, and commitment to Saint Louis University are woven into the tapestry of our Jesuit institution of higher learning. Mary Bruemmer sought a higher purpose and fulfilled a greater good, long before it was our tagline.

In 1985, Mary was named the first SLU Woman of the Year. In 1990, Mary received the University’s Fleur de Lis Award. In 2000, SLU bestowed an honorary doctorate of humanities on Mary. In 2006, she was awarded the national Alpha Sigma Nu Peg Fenning Award, and in 2012, Mary was honored with the Ageless Remarkable St. Louisans Award. Her impact on SLU runs so deep that in 1986 the award bearing her name was given to Fr. Mario Ross, O.F.M. conv., who now also has an award named after him.

Mary will always reside within the hearts of those bold enough to don the fleur-de-lis, share the gratitude for Oriflamme, and proudly proclaim — while winking — that they are a Billiken.

In the 1985 yearbook commemorating Mary’s service, one student wrote: “Her knowledge and expertise will be sorely missed, but most of all we shall miss her warm smile, eager energy, and sympathetic ear. Be well, Miss Bruemmer. You shall be in our thoughts and prayers.”

At that 2016 celebration to mark Mary’s final retirement from SLU, we surprised her with perhaps the most noteworthy honor she ever received. St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson presented Mary an award from our Holy Father, Pope Francis, naming her a Dame Commander of the Order of Saint Sylvester Pope and Martyr, in recognition of her service to SLU and to God and the Church. She was henceforth “Dame Mary.” No one deserved it more.

That award stands with countless others in the fleur-de-lis filled Mary Bruemmer Room on the fourth floor of DuBourg Hall. But as nice as those awards were, they did not mean as much to her as SLU students, her friends, and her colleagues. And she understood what she most needed to do to support them. Mary was unceasing in her efforts to make life even better for those who came after her.

Like thousands of other Billikens, Fran and I benefited from our conversations with Mary. She warmly embraced us as the first lay president and the first first-lady. Our start here was better informed through her wise counsel and critical insights.

Upon hearing of her passing Fran and I reflected on the conversations we had and moments we spent with Mary. Right through our visits at the Saint Agnes Home, where she spent her final years, Mary shared important lessons through her stories. Her intense interest in all things SLU never waned, and her focus was always on the future.

As an example of just how SLU focused Mary remained, I will share a story that Nancy Culbert shared with me. It is a typical Mary story, which tickled Nancy and tickles Fran and me. Mary was at the hospital a few years ago and a doctor came in to check on her. After asking if Mary knew what year it was, he asked if she knew who the President was. Mary was quick to respond, “Yes, of course I do! It’s Fred Pestello!”

In Mary’s final years, she was attended to by a devoted group of women, and by many dear friends. I want to thank Mary’s “committee” — Nancy Culbert, Mary Beth Erickson, Sister Mary Flick, Margy Harris, Mary Krieg, and Ann Padberg — for your care of our beloved Mary. Mary also treasured visits from many cherished friends, including Donna Bess Myers, Genell Bess, Suzie Bolte, Meg Connelly, Madeline Franklin, Louise McAfee, Janet Oberle, Kelly Reynolds, Father Rotolo, Stan Smith, and Pat Ward (who commissioned the Madonna de la Strada statue for Mary).

Former SLU student leaders Matt Ryan and Kripa Sreepada called nearly every day, and made a point to visit whenever they were in the region. Bert Emmons read to her every Thursday, keeping her up-to-date on the latest news and politics. Joann Giljum made sure Mary could connect with friends by Zoom or video message, ensuring her community stayed close over the last two years. Thank you all, and many others, for the circle of love and community you built around our dear friend. (I apologize to those I didn’t name — though if I did forget to name someone here, I know that Mary would remember.)

All who knew Mary will remember her devotion to her faith. Many considered her to be as much a Jesuit as a lay person can be. She represented SLU with dignity — soft spoken, well dressed, refined, welcoming, and generous. We will always remember her warm smile, twinkling eyes, gentle humor, unceasing drive, deep compassion, and gracious handwritten notes. Mary was an advocate and role model for women and an inspiration for everyone. Because of her efforts SLU is a more welcoming and supportive home for all.

Despite the formidable obstacles Mary faced during her SLU career, many because of her gender, she never expressed bitterness about the challenges she endured. Mary only spoke about what a wonderful place SLU is and what an amazing university it was on its way to becoming.

Indeed, with her unceasing work, and her incredible pace — Mary propelled that process of becoming.

She is the Billiken we all aspire to be. One whose efforts pushed SLU to become the university it ought to be. Since the fall of 1938 Mary never fell out of love with this University, its students, staff, faculty, and alumni. She showed it every day of her long life, and she remained a transformative force in the trajectory of Saint Louis University right up to the end. Her transformative work continues even now, through all of us who knew and loved her.

As I remember all that I learned from Mary, I will hold this lesson close: As we walk through SLU’s arches (whether we can match Mary’s pace or not), each of us can choose to live the mission fully. Each of us, through each step we take, can make the mission more fully alive in our words and actions. When we do that, we continue the unceasing legacy of Mary Bruemmer.

Mary Bruemmer truly is a daughter of Saint Louis University, FOREVER. We are forever changed by her life and work.

Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D.
Saint Louis University President