When Mary Bruemmer first arrived at Saint Louis University, no one could have predicted
the impression she would make.
But looking back, the signs were there from the start. This was a girl with moxie. One who presumed, in 1938, that she deserved a chance at a higher education. A young woman from Madison, Illinois, who would take a streetcar over the McKinley Bridge to get to St. Louis every day for the next four years.
"It was a bold step to enter the world of higher education," Bruemmer said. "If even one girl in a Madison High School graduating class went to college, it was news for the local paper."
Like many women of her generation, she thought she'd become a teacher. When she came to SLU, women made up just 5 percent of the student body and were not yet admitted into the College of Arts and Sciences. Bruemmer entered the School of Education and Social Sciences.
"I discovered that, in competing for acceptance, grades or honors, the secret was to act as if prejudice and discrimination did not exist, to presume that I would exceed and excel," she said.
Excel she did. She studied history and made straight-A's, and gained a reputation as a leader.
When she realized The University News staff didn't include women, she led a group of classmates to the newspaper's office and informed the editor that they wanted in. After Pearl Harbor and throughout the World War II years, the involvement of female students became essential all over campus. Bruemmer earned top positions at both the U. News and the Fleur-de-Lis literary magazine.
Her experience and connections would serve her well as she neared the end of her undergraduate days. After the typical course of study and student-teaching her senior year, she realized teaching wasn't for her. By that time, Bruemmer had grown close to SLU's Jesuits, and they recognized her potential. When she decided not to become a teacher, the Jesuits offered her a newly created dean of women position.
She turned it down. Twice.
"I was in no way qualified to be a dean of women," Bruemmer said. "I needed more life experience and to get away from SLU."
By the Numbers: Mary Bruemmer
|Christmas cards sent to alumni friends every year||Years as a Billiken basketball season-ticket holder||Years since she first retired from the University||SLU presidents she's worked and volunteered under||Statues given to the University in her honor|
That was the first and last time that thought crossed her mind. Bruemmer took a job with the Red Cross, training veterans to find jobs. Then she moved to Springfield, Illinois, where the bishop was establishing a Catholic Youth Organization. She ended up setting up CYOs in 10 parishes.
After six years, she switched gears and began a series of positions in media and communications, first as continuity director of a radio station, then in publicity for the Springfield Public Library, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and others. She also created an adult education program at a local junior college.
A few more years passed, and Bruemmer started thinking in another direction: Her father was about to retire, and she wanted to ￼move closer to home. Coincidentally, Saint Louis University leaders were thinking about Bruemmer moving home, too. They asked her again to be the dean of women.
Again, she said no.
However, she agreed to a new position — director of Marguerite Hall, SLU's first official residence hall for women — provided the administration would give her $100 to travel to other schools and learn how to do the job. After an impromptu bus tour to Purdue, Marquette, Northwestern and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Bruemmer felt ready.
That was 1956. With few exceptions — a well-deserved vacation here and there — she's come to SLU every day since.
After Marguerite, she moved to Rogers Hall, another residence hall for women. (The building is now Jesuit Hall.)
In 1967, Bruemmer finally said yes to the role the University had offered her many times, dean of women. She succeeded Nancy McNeir Ring, the first person to have the job, and quickly comprehended what exactly she had taken on.
"The number of women students kept increasing, and the Jesuits realized they didn't know enough about advising them," Bruemmer said. "So Nancy did that. But as a woman, she also represented something more. Because we had no female Jesuits, no wives of Jesuits, she helped with the hospitality. She made the University what it was, hospitable."
Bruemmer lived up to the standard set by her predecessor, and became the person who welcomed new people of all ranks to Saint Louis University.
"Mary was the first Saint Louis University person I met. In fact, she took me to lunch right before my interview in 1972," said Dr. Ellen Harshman (Grad '78, Law '92), who worked with Bruemmer in Student Development and on SLU's Women's Commission. Harshman retired in 2015 after 43 years in the administration and now leads the planning for SLU's bicentennial.
She's wonderful about caring about people and making them feel welcome."Dr. Ellen Harshman (Grad '78, Law '92)
Caring and welcoming became Bruemmer's hallmarks in her next position. In 1972, the University streamlined the leadership in student affairs from three deans (dean of student affairs, dean of men, dean of women) to just one, with Bruemmer at the helm. She cited this era as one of her favorites.
"As dean of student affairs, I was involved with the entire University: residence halls, menus for the dining halls, Busch Student Center, everything," she said. "Plus, I had an apartment downtown with a view of the Arch!"
Bruemmer excelled in this role, and came into contact with students who would remember her forever.
Bruce Hilton (A&S '80, Law '86) sure does. The St. Louis-area lawyer said he "got to know Mary under not the best circumstances" as an "out-of-control, rebellious" undergraduate. Her kindness made a difference; she helped him find a campus job and even secure a student loan to pay his senior-year tuition.
"I'm not being tongue-in-cheek when I say that without her, I wouldn't be where I am today," Hilton said. "She was my guardian angel."
Dean, guardian angel — and the first Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. (The fraternity brothers gave her that title as thanks for helping bring SLU's chapter to campus when she was in student affairs.)
Bruemmer held the deanship for more than a decade, and then moved to the development division to work for J. Barry McGannon, S.J. (A&S '47, Grad '52, '63).
"He paid me two-thirds of what I made as dean of student affairs," she joked, "but I don't have expensive tastes."
Fundraising was a natural fit for Bruemmer, as all the students who loved her became alumni who remembered her fondly.
"Mary is the administrator so many remember from their time as students. She has been that steady presence for generations of students, alumni and friends," said Kent LeVan (Cook '87, '97), who worked with Bruemmer as a student and still does as executive director of planned giving at SLU.
Sheila Manion, vice president for University development, echoed LeVan's sentiments.
"Everyone knows Mary. They might not remember who the president was when they were here, but they remember her," Manion said. "She sets the tone for the way we all should engage with each other."
In 1990, Bruemmer retired from her last official University position — but kept coming to the office daily as a full-time volunteer for the Women's Commission, the Women's Council and Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society. She's never stopped.
"It is incredible that she still is here almost every day," LeVan said.
Today, Bruemmer continues to connect with undergraduates through her ongoing involvement with the Student Government Association and other student organizations.
"I enjoy this generation of students as much as the one that went to war," she said.
Clearly, the affection is mutual. Students stop by her office in DuBourg Hall to chat, cheer for her at Oriflamme training and throw her birthday parties.
At the 2015 party, for her 95th birthday, students made her a gigantic card that still leans on a wall in her office. The card — 4 feet long, 6 feet wide — is covered in messages from student-leaders, each one more effusive and complimentary than the next.
"Thank you for teaching us the true spirit of being Billikens," wrote student Hannah McEnery.
It's a notion shared by many, including University President Dr. Fred P. Pestello. In his inaugural address in 2014, he singled out Bruemmer, calling her "one remarkable woman who is an inspiring example of what it means to be a Billiken."
Bruemmer's response? "I was naturally grateful and pleased, but a little embarrassed." She might feel the same way when the University dedicates a new space in her name: Mary Bruemmer Plaza will grace the front of one of SLU's new residence halls, slated to be finished this summer. The woman who worked with so many of the big names in University history certainly has made one for herself.
For her part, Bruemmer doesn't see what she's done as extraordinary but rather as an act of love.
She referred to the writing of Former Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, S.J., to explain: "Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. ... Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything."
Mary Bruemmer came to Saint Louis University more than three-quarters of a century ago to become a teacher. Little did she know, in SLU she'd find the love of her life.