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Remembering Dr. Jean Willke


At the end of March, one of Trinity’s legendary academic leaders died. Dr. Jean C. Willke, professor of History, former academic dean, former vice president for Academic Affairs, retired from Trinity in 1994, but her influence continues to be strong on the lives of many alumnae. This Saturday, May 5, her former students and colleagues will join with her family in a Mass celebrating her life and many contributions to Trinity. All members of the Trinity community are welcome to join us for the Liturgy at 11 am in Notre Dame Chapel.

Dr. Willke meant a lot to me. I was her student in several History courses in the early 1970’s, and I remember her as a rigorous teacher who would never let a student just slide by — indeed, she had a sixth sense about how hard to challenge a student, and she would push each of us gently but firmly to reach deeper understandings of the causes and effects of historical trends. She was also a great student of college governance. I remember sitting in her office for many hours during my senior year, when I was the Student Government president, seeking her advice on how to handle various issues, or receiving her directions on what to do next. She was never harsh, but always very firm, and often with just a twinkle of merriment barely concealed.

When I returned to Trinity as president in the tumultuous summer of 1989, we had no chief academic officer, and I was overwhelmed with the many tasks that had to be accomplished in just a few short weeks. I knew that one person above all others could help me get Trinity moving ahead: Jean Willke. She had been “Dean Jean” ten years previously, so I knew she was an experienced, adept administrator. But it was a great sacrifice for her to agree to return to the “front office” when she really loved teaching so much more. But for two years, as I learned the ropes of how to be a college president (at least she tried to teach me!), she was a wise and valued colleague, with that same firmness of instruction and insightful guidance I remembered from my student days.

Jean, I thank and salute you even now!

Alumnae have been sending in their recollections of Dr. Willke, and below are just some of the excerpts from their fond remembrances:

“Before I could graduate as a History major (class of ’76) I had to pass my “comprehensives”. These dreaded examinations included an oral exam by the senior faculty. I expected to be the equivalent of Shredded Wheat at the end of my session with Dr. Willke and Dr. Kinnaird. Knowing that I had no hope of learning enough to actually answer their questions, I formulated Plan B. I rephrased a question in a way that I anticipated would provoke a learned debate between the two examiners. Dr. Willke and Dr. Kinnaird proceeded to discuss, at an intellectual level I could only aspire to, whatever the question at hand was. Occassionally, I would ask a follow up question to fuel the fire (and pass the time). I passed! Dr. Willke taught us never to settle for second best. Read primary sources. Dig deep. Ask questions. Demand the best of yourself. Thank you, Dr. Willke.” (from Kathy Devine Hendrickson ’76)

“I was so sorry to hear about Dr. Willke…just seeing her name brought back so many memories of being in her class. She was a wonderful teacher, and I thoroughly enjoyed her class…looked forward to each and every one. I especially remember discussing the Civil War with her, and she always had me, the “token” Southerner in her class, give “our” side of the story. She was challenging, exacting, and always demanded that you do your best, and all the time respecting you, the student. I so admired her.” (From Molly Messner Lane ’78)

“I was saddened to hear of the death of Dr. Wilke. I did take one class from her while at Trinity from 1974-1978. Being an Economics major, it was a rather tough course, but Dr. Wilke was so enthusiastic about history, that she made it interesting for all of us. I won’t say easier, though! I wish the Trinity community and Dr Wilke’s family comfort in each other and in her memories. I will be unable to attend the Mass for her on May 5, as I will be out of the country, but my thoughts and prayers will be with all of you as you celebrate Dr. Wilke’s wonderful life and career.” (From Paula Schenkel ’78)

“From 1985-1986, I participated in the Oxford Program through Trinity. I was an English major with a history minor. In the first semester that I returned from England, I had a course with Dr. Wilke. For the research paper that I had to write in this class, I chose the topic of Alexander the Great. It was a bad choice for me – I knew very little and had to do a great deal of research. On top of that, I was having the worst case of writer’s block I have ever experienced. I can’t explain why, perhaps I thought that after my intense year at St. Julie Hall, I had to write the perfect paper, perhaps I was intimidated by what I knew to be Dr. Wilke’s high standards. In either case, I went to Dr. Wilke the day before the paper was due with about 2 lbs. of notecards in my hand, but not one word written. I explained my problem (and may have shed some tears of frustration) to Dr.Wilke. She told me a story about writing her dissertation. Her sister had agreed to type the final draft for her (on a typewriter, of course). Dr. Wilke told me that as her sister began typing the dissertation, Dr. Wilke was taking the pages from her typewriter and making more revisions. After a couple of pages, her sister stopped, looked up and said “I’m only doing this once, if you keep doing that, you’ll never finish.” Dr. Wilke had to leave the dissertation as it was. The moral of the story was “go write the paper – no matter what”. I got a D+ on the paper, but I think it probably deserved an F. Her kindness was not lost on me and I have repeated that story countless times to my own students when they needed a little inspiration. Dr. Wilke will be remembered by all of us who carry a little piece of her legacy into all that we do. Please extend my sincere condolences to Dr. Wilke’s family and friends. I will plan to have a mass said for her at my parish.” (From Frances Donnellon Federici ’88)

“The History Department at Trinity was a dynamic environment during my years there in the mid ’60’s. Led by two strong women – Sr Mary Lawlor, and Dr Jean Willke. As a result of their success in making history a living experience, I majored in History at Trinity. Their styles couldn’t have been more different, but complementary: in her presentations, Sr Lawlor “staged” history’s events and people – it was enticing, and exciting; Dr Willke painted a picture in increments, ensuring a thorough knowledge of the subject – she produced understanding and reflection. Each was a wonderful role model of a smart, successful woman at a time when young women needed role models to encourage professional development and success. We should all thank Trinity for that. I remain grateful to these two women, both now deceased, who sparked my love of history, which in turn became a springboard for me in applying to law school a number of years later.” (From Patricia Aiken-O’Neill)

Do you have a memory of Dr. Willke? Please send me your remembrance by clicking on the message envelope below or send to

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: