Occasionally on life’s journey, we are fortunate to cross paths with someone so extraordinary that we find ourselves walking along the way with her, heedless of direction but feeling that, somehow, we must be heading to the right place. Before I met Sue Ann Shay in 1988 — before I became Trinity’s president, but when I was first a member of our Board of Trustees and she joined our board — I had never met a Sister of Notre Dame who was also a lawyer. Or a sailor. Or such a talented professional woman who had heard the call to her vocation at mid-life. I knew many Sisters of Notre Dame who were passionate about the congregation’s mission in action for social justice, but few left me as routinely astonished with her firey commitment to the world’s underdogs as Sue Ann Shay. We became fast friends, and soon co-conspirators in our belief that our beloved alma mater, Trinity, should embrace new directions for the education of the world’s women as a matter of social justice.
When I learned that Sue Ann died last week after a long illness, I smiled at the thought that she was now, at once, at peace after a long struggle, but also probably raising hell in heaven about some injustice on the other side of those pearly gates. She surely would not sit around for long letting some souls have great mansions while others have only small flats. She might have a word with St. Peter, or even The Boss, about equalizing housing opportunity up there.
Sue Ann Shay was one of the great SND voices on Trinity’s board during the difficult years in the 1990′s when we had considerable controversy over the direction of the college. The Sisters of Notre Dame on the board were never in doubt about the imperative of social justice in Trinity’s mission, and they were stalwarts when some of the lay members questioned whether Trinity should be so assertive about embracing the educational needs of the women of our city. Sue Ann never minced words on this subject — she would not let me dither on those occasions when the debates got hot and I wondered if we should find some way to compromise. Invariably, after a board meeting, we’d have a burger and a beer at Colonel Brooks, and Sue Ann put her great advocacy skills to work persuading me that we should stay the course.
Staying the course was a lesson she learned through years of sailing. I did not realize her passion for sailing until one summer day when I visited her at her brother’s home in Swansea, Massachusetts where she was enjoying a brief summer vacation. She greeted me with an immediate direction to come out back to her boat, a rather small sunfish that could barely hold both of us — but she launched confidently into the lovely harbor just at sunset, and I had the unique experience of watching this diminutive nun-lawyer-sailor turn into an expert sea captain. Later on I learned that, in her younger days, she had sailed competitively and won awards.
Sue Ann first came to Trinity in 1954 with the Class of 1958 — a great class that includes our first woman in Congress, Barbara Bailey Kennelly, who, like Sue Ann, called Hartford, CT her home. After graduation, Sue Ann went to Fordham Law School where she surely must have been among the pioneer women there. She went to work for New York Legal Aid, and later, for New Haven Legal Assistance and then Hartford Neighborhood Legal Services.
In 1975, Sue Ann heard the call to vocation and took her vows as a Sister of Notre Dame. She was well into her legal career, and her zeal only grew with her new status signified by the S.N.D. that accompanied her “Esq.” She was an active advocate on behalf of the powerless and disenfranchised; she joined those organizations that worked for peace and against war and nuclear arms. She was a longstanding member of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
In 1997, she helped to found the Communities Law Center in Hartford, a new kind of law firm organized by religious women to serve the needs of the poor and those suffering injustice. She worked with the Benchmark Institute in California to give legal training sessions around the country. She also found time to serve as a mentor for Notre Dame Americorps. And, somehow, in spite of her many commitments, she always had time for me whenever I needed advice, inspiration or a strong arm to trim my sails into the right direction.
As I was doing a little research on Sue Ann for this blog, I came across something quite fascinating that I never knew in the 12 years she served as my colleague on our board. A document I first found through the Clinton Presidential Library is a report from the Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness for the Second Circuit Judicial Council. The document is a fascinating study of conditions for women and minorities in courts, law firms and the judiciary in the second circuit (the U.S. courts in New York, Connecticut and parts of Vermont). Turns out that Sue Ann Shay, S.N.D., was one of three lawyers working with four judges on this task force, and among the four judges who were her colleagues, the name that stands out on the cover page is the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor. I never had a chance to ask Sue Ann about her now-famous colleague, but, somehow, I think that Sue Ann would have been very pleased that she is now Justice Sotomayor.
When the Class of 1958 celebrated their 50th reunion last year, I knew that Sue Ann’s absence meant that her health issues had become grave. She loved Trinity immensely and rarely missed an occasion to visit. Her life’s work was a powerful tribute to the influence of the Sisters of Notre Dame on the lives of Trinity students. She touched and changed the lives of so many others for the better, and she was one of Trinity’s most significant leaders in our most precarious decade, the 1990′s when her voice on our board truly made a great difference in our understanding of why Trinity should persist and must prevail.
Sue Ann Shay, we miss you, and we salute your legacy of justice and peace!