Tributes to Sister Grace McDonald on the occasion of her retirement
Upon her retirement from the Viterbo University Board of Trustees.
Sr. McDonald was honored for providing 48 years of continuous service as an instructor, president, and board member.
— the vision, the determination, and the wisdom of the Board —
My service on the Viterbo College Board of Directors began in 1973, shortly after I retired as chair of AGB. Sister Grace McDonald had recently retired as president of the college and was in her 14th year of service on the board. From personal knowledge, I confirm Sister Grace’s accomplishments for Viterbo.
In the succeeding 26 years that Sister Grace and I have shared on Viterbo’s board, she has been the vision, the determination, and the wisdom of the board.
Behind the outstanding programs of Viterbo College stands Sister Grace’s character. Her vision is blended with common sense. She understands and loves people. She brings determination to debate but helps to reach harmonious consensus. She is a teacher and scholar, yet probes faculty foibles with wit and kindness.
Our board, our faculty, our administration, our students, all function at a higher level because of her presence. If only every college in America had on its board, a Sister Grace McDonald!
Charles D. Gelatt
Former member of the Viterbo Board of Trustees
Submitted September 16, 1999
— a person who personifies institutional memory and mission —
Let me write about Sister Grace McDonald from a different perspective, which is uniquely mine.
Imagine succeeding a brilliant, beloved, skilled, and well-known woman as president of a college. She had been a visionary, strong, thoughtful, and careful leader in difficult times for a college which sometimes struggled. She had taken bold and decisive steps: taking the college from single-sex to coeducational, building a new Fine Arts Center of spectacular size and possibility, opening a new four-year nursing program, hiring a strong cadre of new faculty members, and establishing herself in the community and statewide as a leader, when women held few college presidencies outside colleges owned by Catholic religious communities.
And now she had been elected president of the Franciscan Sisters of La Crosse, almost by acclamation, and became chair of the board for Viterbo College.
She could have made my life difficult, or even miserable, without doubt, as some predecessors have been known to do. She could have raised an occasional eyebrow, or said, “Oh, I am saddened to hear that,” and undermined me easily. Ask other presidents who have predecessors on their board, or in the role of chancellor!
This great woman was nothing but supportive, helpful when asked, wise and decisive in her leadership of the board, and simply an incredible gift both personally and professionally. She has continued to be a quiet, steady, understanding member of the board, with a strong sense of academic life and professional teaching, and a person who personifies institutional memory and mission, always respectfully, and never negatively.
For so many reasons, she is certainly a worthy and honorable person.
Rev. J. Thomas Finucan, Ph.D.
Submitted September 20, 1999
— full of grace —
Full of grace and definitely part of my history! How can I adequately express my thoughts to someone who is friend and sister, and has been a mentor and leader for me? What memories we could share. You share your Irish charm and humor even with us Germans!
As we say THANKS to you for your many years of service on behalf of Viterbo College and, I might add FSPA, I am reminded of a section from the Book of Proverbs 31: 29-31.
Many are the women of proven worth,
but you have excelled them all.
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;
the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a reward for her labors,
and let her works praise her at the (city) heavenly gates.
Thanks Grace, and may your presence and beauty continue to grace my life for many years to come.
Peace and all good,
Ladonna Kassmeyer, FSPA
Submitted May 19, 2000
— her determination and enthusiasm knows no bounds —
Sister Grace is a woman of vision—a woman dedicated to her faith and Viterbo College. I have known her and worked with her for 40 years and her determination and enthusiasm for the college knows no bounds.
The finest moments fall into three categories. She studied and fine-tuned the mission statement until it was the perfect one. I was president of the Board of Advisors when the project of Marian Hall dormitory was addressed. None of us had the vision for a then tiny college to take on the monetary burden. But she insisted and the plans came to fruition.
The Fine Arts Center was long a dream for the FSPA order. Looking to the future and hoping to enhance the arts for the community, she worked on this problem. Once again she convinced us that it was the time and place. Twenty-five years later, La Crosse and the envious of Minnesota, Iowa, and our own Wisconsin, see, hear, and enjoy all the arts because of fundraising, hard work, and the vision of Sister Grace McDonald and the Board of Directors, of which I was a member for 30 years.
I leave you with my respect, love, and enthusiasm for my dear friend, Sister Grace.
Mary M. Funk,
Former member of the Board of Trustees
Submitted September 20, 1999
— the founder of present day Viterbo College —
As president of Viterbo College, I am pleased to honor an individual who as a professor, president, and board member has given 48 years of continuous service to higher education. Sister Grace McDonald, Ph.D., a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, served as professor of history at Viterbo College from 1954 to 1960. She was elected president of the college and served in that position from 1960 to 1970. For the past 30 years, she has been a model board member whose vision and leadership have sustained the Board of Directors in times of opportunity and in times of challenge.
Although the roots of Viterbo extend back to 1890, the college, as it exists today, truly is the result of the vision and leadership that Sister Grace McDonald has exercised initially as president, and for the past 30 years as a member of the Board of Directors. There is no doubt that Sister Grace, as president, was the founder of present day Viterbo College, and as a board member has helped significantly to bring it to “maturity.” Sister Grace enhanced the mission and purposes of the college from an institution educating sisters of her own congregation to an institution that began educating lay men and women. She began the first professional program to be offered in this liberal arts institution, a major in nursing, for which she also secured an academic building. During her tenure, she constructed a six-story student resident complex and began work on a new Fine Arts Center which today is still considered a premiere showcase among college fine arts centers in the upper Midwest.
Sister Grace’s vision for Viterbo College as president and board member is still the impetus for much that is being accomplished today. Whether Viterbo is implementing a new professional degree program or enhancing its campus environment, we return to the vision that Sister Grace first enunciated. As we complete a project here or a project there, as we introduce a major here or a major there, I cannot help but think that the blueprint for all this was developed initially by Sister Grace McDonald as president and sustained by her board leadership.
I have served in both public and private universities, as well as small independent colleges like Viterbo. During my nearly 35 years in higher education, I have never met a board member who possessed the vision, the leadership, the passion, the persistence, and the character of a Sister Grace. She is the ideal board member in that she has never missed a board meeting, and she is prepared always for the issues at hand, whether it is in the academic committee of the board which she chairs, or any one of the other board committees reporting to the full board. Her leadership has helped stabilize and strengthen this institution. As a board member, she has been the “Rock of Gibralter” during the financially challenging 1970s and 1980s. From time to time, Viterbo College presidents have been criticized for this action or that comment, but Sister Grace has always been there to give public support to the individual and to the presidency. I can attest to this personally. Early in my tenure here, I met with much resistance to change, and there was a faculty movement to secure my resignation. Sister Grace was there leading the board in supporting the president. Today there is good morale on the campus and the college is expanding its enrollment, budget, programs, fund raising, and the physical plant in accord with its strategic plan which Sister Grace helped craft as a board member to the planning committee. Sister Grace, I believe, truly is the source of this transformation. She made the transition from administrator to board member with a remarkable clarity for the separate functions of the positions. In so doing, she assures that the Board understands its role in governance. This has been a real strength for the institution.
Since becoming president in 1991, I have relied on Sister Grace McDonald to shepherd through the academic committee issues, policies, and new educational programs. During her time as chair of the academic committee of the board, she has supported and the board has passed a number of new majors including management information systems, organizational management, criminal justice, social work, and music theatre. She was a significant supporter of Viterbo College in the late 1980s when it initiated graduate courses. Today, the college has master's degrees in both education and nursing. Last July the graduate program in education alone awarded over 300 master's degrees. As the chair of the academic committee, she was instrumental in securing board of directors’ approval for collaboration in undergraduate educational with Northland College and in graduate education with the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Also, the college through her board leadership is in a cooperative allied health consortium with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Western Wisconsin Technical College, Franciscan Skemp Healthcare of the Mayo System, and Gundersen Lutheran Healthcare, a teaching branch of University of Wisconsin-Madison medical school.
Through her academic committee leadership on the board, the college defined the attributes of a Viterbo graduate, updated the mission statement, expanded international contracts, clarified the governance structure, and created five undergraduate schools, a school for non-traditional students and a school of graduate studies. This is only representative of the many changes that have transpired during the past three decades while she was a member of the board of directors.
Sister Grace was most instrumental in assisting the college during this decade in securing external financial support. She is the individual who asked and secured a $3 million dollar gift for our current campaign, a gift that is the largest amount ever given to the college by a single individual. She continues to promote the college and is involved in our fund raising efforts.
Sister Grace has received the college’s most prestigious award, the Pope John XXIII Award for Distinguished Service. The recipients of this award over the past 25 years read like a “Who’s Who” of servant Americans. Also, she is one of only eight individuals ever awarded an “Honorary Doctorate” from this 110-year-old institution. More recently, she has been recognized for her commitment to mission and for her role as the visionary leader for the arts and the Fine Arts Center.
In summary, I believe that Sister Grace McDonald truly is symbolic of the leadership among sister congregations, sisters who initiated over 150 colleges in the United States. I also believe that Viterbo College would not be where it is today in its history, if Sister Grace McDonald had not volunteered to be a member of the independent board of directors, a governance structure which she created during her presidency. Her vision and leadership on the board has ensured the proper functioning of the board for 30 years and has ensured the relatively smooth transformation of this Catholic, Franciscan institution of higher learning. She is the paragon of board service of women religious to small Catholic colleges throughout the United States.
William J. Medland, Ph.D.
President of Viterbo College
Submitted September 25, 1999
— pivotal role and prophetic vision —
On this occasion of your retirement, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for all that you have done for the health and perseverance of Viterbo College. I thank you for having carried the college through times of expansion, change, risk, and uncertainty. I thank you for your pivotal role and your prophetic vision in the construction of the “folly” of the Fine Arts Center—a magnificent gift to the Viterbo, FSPA, and La Crosse communities. I thank you for your respect for tradition along with your vision for the possible that holds Viterbo in the tension that promotes growth and vitality. I thank you for your love and dedication to Viterbo College over these past 40 years.
During my brief tenure here of the past 10 years, whether as an associate professor, dean, or now vice president, I have always held within my heart the knowledge that I “stand on the shoulders” of some awesome sisters who have served here before me, and I try to carry that legacy with me in all decision-making and focus for the college. I have always considered you to be one of these “awesome” women for the wisdom and grace you so freely share. Thank you, again, for your role in making Viterbo College what it is today. May Sophia continue to shower you with her love and blessing.
Jean M. Moore, FSPA, Ph.D.
Submitted May 19, 2000
— a woman who has been a great inspiration —
Dear Sister Grace,
As you may remember, we had lunch early on after I began at Viterbo. I invited you, as I said at the time, at the suggestion of Fr. Tom Finucan who told me before I moved to Viterbo, “get to know Sister Grace; take her to lunch; she is a great lady and will be a great help to you.” I found what Tom said to be true—you are a great lady and a woman who has been (though you may not know it) a great inspiration and support for me. I wish you every blessing as you continue to guide this institution through your prayers, presence, and faithful support.
With gratitude and a promise of prayers,
Fr. Tom O’Neill
Submitted April 23, 2000
— wonderful blessing —
What a wonderful blessing we all have in sharing life with you! You have been Grace to all of us. I recall some places our paths have been the same. Do you remember the French priest, Fr. William D’Arcy, who made a splendid five course dinner for us in Guam at Bishop Flores’ residence? The year was about 1972. And it was neat to have lunch together last year here at Marquette. How wide the world is and how generous our Lord is!
Love always, in Jesus,
Bernadette Prochaska, FSPA
Submitted April 15, 2000
— visionary in her leadership —
I have known Sister Grace for over 25 years, having served as a member and past president of the Viterbo College Board of Advisors followed by almost 20 years on Viterbo’s Board of Directors.
Before and during all that time, Sister Grace was a visionary in her leadership at Viterbo College. She had the wisdom to recommend the creation of the first Board of Directors and became its charter member.
In the mid-60s, under Sister Grace’s leadership as president of the college, she had the courage and foresight to recommend that Viterbo have a fine arts center. She persuaded the board to build the Fine Arts Center which today is the cultural center of La Crosse and surrounding cities.
In 1970, Sister Grace recognized the need to have leadership outside the FSPA. She formed a search committee that recommended the appointment of Rev. J. Thomas Finucan as her replacement as president of Viterbo College.
During her years, her vision has been instrumental in the building of dormitories and an athletic building. She has inspired large gifts to the development department which she established in 1963.
Through Sister Grace’s visionary leadership, Viterbo College is a vibrant university which is positioning itself to be an outstanding educational institution in the 21st century.
Viterbo College has never wavered from the FSPA mission and Sister Grace McDonald’s vision and foresight. Today she is a guiding member of the board as it promotes VISION 2005 and the Institute for Ethics in Leadership.
Marikaye S. Robers
Viterbo College Board of Directors
Institutional Advancement Chair
Submitted April 13, 2000
— a grace-filled Grace —
Dear Sister Grace,
Congratulations on your designation as Director Emerita for Viterbo College. Words are inadequate to describe your contributions to the FSPA, Viterbo, and the Coulee Region. Thanks for all of that.
We also wish to thank you for the way you and the FSPA have touched our lives. You personally have been warm and friendly to us. You have shared your knowledge, experience, and wisdom. You have inspired us to be aware of the Franciscan charisms and to strive, even though poorly, to emulate them. Thanks for being our friend and for being a “grace-filled” Grace.
May God continue to bless you abundantly.
Sincerely and lovingly,
Jane and Lindy Saline
Submitted April 13, 2000
— steadfast and prudent guidance —
Sister Grace has been an initiator and supporter of multiple developments at Viterbo College and in the field of higher education. She currently serves on the executive committee, the nominating committee, and the curriculum committee. My strongest recollection about her wisdom includes the risk she advocated and voted for in bringing a fine arts building to Viterbo’s campus and to the city. The undertaking was a risk because of the financial exposure it brought; it was also much more than just adding a building. The presence of a facility for the teaching and creation of music, drama, and art impacted the entire La Crosse area. Because of it, the community at large became more vitally involved than ever before in funding private higher education. By their participation in the Bright Star ticket season for professional performances at the arts center, the community also came to appreciate the role that higher education plays in offering an increased quality of life to a given community. This effort in the fine arts field has became a primary part of the identity of the Viterbo College for the tri-state area.
Another of my dominant recollections of Sister Grace is the steadfast and prudent guidance she gave during the unrest on campus at the time when a new president was beginning his role. She wisely balanced the opinions of all groups involved and publicly stood for the welfare of the students and the stability of the teaching environment. It was a considerable risk to her personal reputation that she spoke forcefully to the entire college community and to the media of the appropriate role of the board, the indispensable role of the administration, and the rightful place of the faculty. Her voice was significant in calming the passions at sway and in reasserting the board’s authority.
Beyond these two major events, I associate Sister Grace with many developmental stages of the college’s growth. She advocated, voted for, and withstood the opposition to making a vehemently feminine campus into a coeducational institution. Subsequently, she advocated for an increased number of sports programs, as well as a school of business, a pre-professional curriculum, and the graduate programs in teaching and nursing.
The governor of Wisconsin asked this woman, popularly associated with private higher education, to serve on the first ethics committee founded to serve his administration and the state assembly. In doing so, he recognized the broad orientation and deep insights typical of Sister Grace’s service in the civic community. She served in this sensitive and technical role for several years and she enjoyed it.
Sister Grace has also advocated a global mentality for the college. She began by supporting a black studies program led by Sister Thea Bowman. The program invited students into the homes of the black community in Mississippi during the students’ study of Faulkner and other voices of the South. Later, sister Grace advocated inviting and funding students from many countries and cultures to study at Viterbo both for their betterment and for the cultural exposure their presence would give to other students and to the general population of this upper Midwest La Crosse region. Faculty exchange programs were also encouraged to prepare teachers to instruct students in the skills they will need to function in the multi-cultural environment of today’s world.
A nurses’ training program was moved from a three-year hospital-based program to the only bachelor of nursing degree program in the immediate area. This was accomplished largely by the negotiation expertise of Sister Grace McDonald. Today, not only does this school retain one of the largest enrollments of the college, but it has continued to develop in quality and its graduate program in nursing is one of the newest programs on campus.
Sister Grace remains a wisdom figure and the personification of the private higher education in the La Crosse area. She is known, respected and admired for her vision, courage, and congeniality. I highly commend this woman for the contribution she has made and for the example she has given regarding private higher education in this community, state, and country.
Sister Celesta Day, FSPA, D.Min.
Viterbo University former trustee
Submitted September 22, 1999
— “moved” the institution in strategic and powerful ways –
There are over 3,000 colleges and universities in America and the vast majority are small, liberal arts institutions—the likes of which educated a great number of our nation’s college-bound students. Most of these colleges and universities aren’t famous, some even bear unfamiliar names. Even so, many of these fine institutions work very hard to balance budget, provide quality education, and contribute to the betterment of our society. That’s the beauty of the American system of higher education because in the end, it works magnificently and serves as a model that is the envy of the world.
These prefacing remarks allow me to introduce Sister Grace McDonald, FSPA (also known as Sister Justille McDonald) and the reason we honor her today. She has been a passionate, selfless, dedicated leader and member of the Viterbo College Board of Directors who literally and symbolically represents the dynamic leadership of religious communities whose members have dedicated their entire lives to building America’s first system of higher education. I humbly submit that at a time of tremendous change and transition in higher education, the selection of Sister Grace McDonald for this special moment of honor provides long overdue recognition to the religious communities as well, which founded America’s first systems of higher education. And Sister Grace is an outstanding example of a director who has demonstrated tremendous courage and leadership in establishing a governance system, which many other independent colleges in our region and nation have modeled.
Sister Grace McDonald’s service has spanned four decades—yes, 40 uninterrupted years! Her accomplishments are widespread and enormous; and, rather than attempt to cover all salient points, I rely on supporting authors to provide the additional information which when compiled, becomes a rather comprehensive and impressive appraisal of her good work.
Most impressive, has been Sister Grace McDonald’s leadership in promoting significant change in the mission of Viterbo College. This required challenging the status quo and taking great risks in order to bring about some very powerful and necessary changes.
In1890, Viterbo College was founded, staffed, and directed by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). In the 1960s, Sister Grace, president of the college at the time, recognized that change was inevitable, particularly for schools established by religious communities of women and men. She recommended an autonomous governing role for the college resulting in the creation of the independent Board of Directors, constituted in November 1960. She was a charter member. Forty years later, she remains a highly respected and active member of the board and soon to be Trustee Emerita!
Despite the inevitable resistance to change, Sister Grace never wavered from her vision that Viterbo College had a broader role to play in the world of higher education. Consequently she proceeded by recommending: the establishment of the college’s first development office in 1963; the creation of the teacher retirement fund, also in the same year; the expansion of Viterbo’s governance plan to include the election of lay members to the board of directors in 1966. These very significant changes constituted just the beginning, and more was to follow at the urging of Sister Grace as Viterbo College continued to grow and stretch itself.
In 1970, Sister Grace proposed that the all-female Viterbo College community identify itself as a coeducational institution and actively recruit male students. Already in the fall of 1970, men were officially admitted. This action constituted one of her last major actions as combined President/Director.
During the decade of the ’60s, Sister Grace also recognized another important and compelling reality that was to challenge Viterbo and the FSPA community. It was time to go outside the religious congregation for leadership. She formed a search committee, which recommended the appointment of Rev. J. Thomas Finucan as the first non-FSPA president in the history of the college. The recommendation became a reality in 1970.
Some other significant changes were occurring at the college, which literally shook the “foundation” of Viterbo. A small entity, the pre-’60s Viterbo campus was contained and very dependent upon the FSPA motherhouse for its existence. Sister McDonald advocated for growth. Dormitory space was created; and an additional building for classrooms was acquired, and she made a resolution to purchase no less than three city blocks in 10-20 years. Because of Sister Grace’s leadership, the board concurred with her vision despite reservations that the expectations for this little college were too high and the goals were unachievable. This was in 1960. Now, 40 years later, the “fantasy” that Sister Grace envisioned, has become a reality.
Under her leadership as president and member of the Board of Directors, Viterbo has developed into a strong and vibrant college. During just the past decade, full-time undergraduate enrollment has doubled, endowment has tripled and a graduate program in education which was just started in 1990 has grown to be one of the largest in the United States, granting more than 300 degrees annually. Viterbo also has the reputation for being the leader in the arts for the entire region. This distinction was earned as a result of the FSPAs historical and unwavering commitment to the fine arts, and Sister Grace’s confidence that the arts would serve as Viterbo’s gateway to unparalleled recognition. Consequently, she recommended in the mid ’60s, to her stunned and disbelieving directors, that Viterbo should build a magnificent, multi-million dollar Fine Arts Center as a tribute to the arts and Viterbo’s future commitment to programs associated with it.
Called an albatross, “a white elephant,” and equally unattractive names, the Board led by Sister Grace nevertheless gave the go-ahead. After all, why doubt Sister McDonald now! The building was approved and completed in 1970 and to this day, Viterbo enjoys one of the largest theatre enrollments in Wisconsin and the programming which emanates from the facility is the cultural highlight for the entire region in the areas of visual art, music, and the performing arts. The La Crosse area also uses it as “their” facility.
It would be a mistake not to also credit others for successes, which have been outlined. Sister Grace depended upon the strong and courageous support of her colleagues on the board who shared and inspired a common vision. Even so, it was Sister Grace’s perseverance, presence, vision, and tenacity, spread over a long period of time that gradually and consistently and incrementally “moved” an institution in strategic and powerful ways.
Today Sister Grace is credited with having exercised prominent influence in encouraging the largest philanthropic gifts received by the college. In addition to these ways of promoting the well being of the college, she also has continued to challenge the status quo whenever she believes the college will benefit from change. And it should be noted that she exhibited a powerful leadership style years ago—well before it became socially acceptable for women to do so. She was a pioneer, a “Power of One” so to speak, who loved and believed in the mission of the college the Franciscan Sisters had founded. She nurtured change and continually led a college that is ready to undertake the challenge of the new millennium.
It should also be noted that Sister Grace has been able to be the driving force of this change while maintaining the utmost respect for the continuing role of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Viterbo remains very mission driven and Franciscan in orientation. While many colleges retain their founding authority in name only, the Sisters remain very interested in the future direction of the college. They continue to provide generous financial support as well as being actively involved in governance, administration, and staffing. Perhaps it is the lasting tribute to the strong visionary leadership that Sister Grace provides as a legacy.
Sister Grace always saw the mission of Viterbo College not in isolation but as integrated with the whole life of the La Crosse community. When it wasn’t popular or even in practice, she became a very acceptable part of the business community by instinctively integrating the religious orientation of the college with the growth and development of the civic community as well.
It is with great pleasure and profound respect that I say, well done good and faithful servant!
S. Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA, Ph.D.
Chairperson, Board of Directors
Submitted September 27, 1999
— compassion and sense of humor —
Dear Sister Grace,
Your leadership, vision, compassion, and sense of humor have forged a path of success for Viterbo University. My thanks to you for your kind words of support over the years.
Submitted April 28, 2000
— so deeply involved —
Dear Sister Grace,
My best wishes to you as you retire from the Viterbo University board. Note that I have chosen to use the new Viterbo University name, since you have been so deeply involved on the way to the college becoming a university.
Congratulations on your designation as Director Emerita for your many years of service. I will always remember your kindness to me in my days as a Viterbo board member.
May you have many days of happy retirement.
God bless you always,
Submitted May2, 2000