Our beloved Sister Margaret Claydon died on February 1, 2020 at Mount Notre Dame in Cincinnati. Trinity’s formal tribute to her and a link to provide your own tribute are on the Sister Margaret Claydon web page. Below is my personal recollection of this remarkable woman, sister, friend and leader.
I remember the first time I ever saw Sr. Margaret Claydon, SNDdeN, and heard her speak. It was early in September, 1970, on my very first day at Trinity as a freshman. I sat in the back of O’Connor Auditorium at our first mandatory assembly (yes, those were the days!) and on the stage there was one of the most elegant women I had ever seen. I quickly learned that she was our college president, Sister Margaret, and she had very high expectations for all of us in the Green Class of 1974. She spoke of our formation in the values of personhood that Trinity Women exemplified across the years, women of intelligence, integrity and faith. My new classmates and I, being 17 and restless in our new home, probably did not hear as much as we should have, but she continued teaching us patiently, insistently and clearly across the long span of her life and ours. She was the classiest of all the class acts I have ever met — wise, elegant, eloquent, gracious and witty.
Those early days of September, 1970, could not have been easy for Sister Margaret. Revolution churned through college campuses across America, with anti-war protests over Vietnam and civil rights demonstrations and the cultural phenomena all summed-up in the phrase “counterculture.” We students wanted to be part of the action wherever a happening occurred, and we chafed at the rules of Trinity — curfews, parietal hours, expectations for study over play. At times, we did our best to bring the revolutionary fervor to the Marble Corridor, and Sister Margaret would listen to our chants or look at our protest posters with that wry smile and wise eye twinkle that only later I realized communicated her tacit agreement with our desire for liberation, not just from too many old rules but in fact from habits of injustice and conflict in the larger world. She was preparing us to be leaders in the corporate and civic communities we would engage beyond graduation day, and she knew instinctively that our clumsy efforts at raising our voices and organizing protests as students simply was practice for what we had to do to change the world.
I remember once, in my senior year when I was the student government president, I was frustrated with my sister students who were refusing to go along with some plan I had cooked up. I wandered along the Marble Corridor apparently looking dejected, and Sr. Margaret came along and asked me what was wrong. I said I didn’t understand why my friends in the student Senate had turned on me, were blocking progress and criticizing my style. Oh, she said with a knowing smile, so you are learning how to be a leader! You will be just fine, she said… and so I was.
Sr. Margaret loved building projects — she built the library, Kerby Hall, and the music and art wing on Main. She clearly enjoyed being on the construction sites, as seen in the photos below inspecting Kerby Hall under construction (top photo) and peeking out from the unfinished floors of the library, all of which must have been a bit complicated in full habit, but she was a trooper!
Never in all those years did I imagine that one day I would follow in her footsteps and would inhabit the President’s Office at Trinity. I’m not sure that she expected that, either! But over the years, I found in Sister Margaret an irreplaceable mentor, a firm guide through difficult times and hard decisions, and as time went on, a warm friend who was always ready with a lighthearted quip or meaningful quote from one of her great English poets like Hopkins or Eliot.
As president, I learned things about Trinity I never knew as a student or alumna, and gained insights into the worries and stresses that Sr. Margaret must have experienced in her 16 years as Trinity’s president. The 1960’s were not only tumultuous socially and politically, but that decade was also a time of great change for higher education. In particular, the world of women’s colleges was changing dramatically as the men’s schools went coed in a cascade of change.
Sr. Margaret had great plans for Trinity’s campus expansion in the early 1960’s, and she set about acquiring the land across the street from Soldier’s Home and developing a campus master plan that had expansive buildings for a much larger Trinity on both sides of Michigan Avenue. But then, in 1968, just a few weeks after the president of Georgetown assured her that they were not going to go coed, the Washington Post ran a story announcing coeducation at Georgetown. Sr. Margaret recounted this episode without bitterness but still with wonderment that her brother president misled her. Higher education can be treacherous, indeed. She set about strengthening Trinity’s position as a women’s college, and her fierce devotion to our mission continued through all of the roles she played later in life. She helped to create the Women’s College Coalition to ensure the future of this very special mission for future women leaders. As Trinity transformed to the modern institution we know today, Sr. Margaret was immensely supportive and a strong voice in favor of adapting to the needs of each generation of women whom Trinity is called to serve.
Sr. Margaret also was a leader in the revolution for autonomy for Catholic colleges and empowerment of lay leadership on boards. She worked with Trinity’s Board of Trustees through the 1960s to transition from religious members to a majority of lay members. In 2017, I spoke about her role among Catholic colleges at Notre Dame for the convening on the 50th Anniversary of the Land O’ Lakes document on Catholic higher Education. In my speech, I noted this about Sr. Margaret’s leadership:
“In 1966, a year before the Land o’ Lakes meeting, Sister Margaret Claydon – a Sister of Notre Dame who was Trinity’s great president from 1959 to 1975 – was also chair of the National Catholic Education Association and said this at one of their meetings:
“None of us can continue to operate under any sort of double-standard regulations in regard to faculty. Religious and lay faculty members should be governed by the same policies regarding appointment, retirement, responsibilities…. Boards of Trustees should be so organized to secure the best possible educational leadership and planning. The only criterion for appointment or election to the Board should be competence in a special area rather than holding of an office of authority in a religious community.”
“She went on:
“As institutions in the era of post-Vatican II, each has the responsibility to become much involved with problems of the local community. We should be identified with ‘the servant Church’ and work towards creating programs to help alleviate the misery of poverty and of the poor.”
“In many other talks she gave on Catholic education in those years, Margaret’s voice was as prophetic as the men at the Lakes. She emphasized the “signs of the times” and she spoke of the responsibilities inherent in “Inheriting a Revolution,” the title of another major address she gave in 1965. Her framework was consistent with Gaudium et Spes, and her call to mission echoed in Land o’ Lakes and Ex Corde.
“While not invited to the Land o’ Lakes meeting, Sr. Margaret later was elected as one of the delegates to the 1972 Vatican congress on Catholic higher education — the only woman in the American delegation. I spoke to Margaret just last week about the Vatican meetings and she recounted this story: “I kept raising my hand and wanting to speak, but they wouldn’t call on me,” she said with a laugh that was pointed even decades later. The men were ignoring her. She confided her frustration to her friend Ted Hesburgh. He came up with a plan: “He invited me to lunch. We walked out of the Vatican at the spot where all the men were getting into their big limousines, and he made a point of introducing me to each of them, and then we walked on together and they saw us talking. After that, they called on me regularly.” “
After she retired from the presidency, Sister Margaret continued teaching on the English faculty at Trinity and new generations of Trinity Women learned to love Shakepeare through her marvelous classes. She had countless friends and even more fans among her classmates and Trinity alumnae across the country and around the world, and she was a wise and supportive colleague for new generations of faculty and administrators at Trinity. Her advice to me was invaluable, and I cherished her as a friend and confidante who was one of the only people who could really understand some of the thorny challenges of being Trinity’s president.
Perhaps most important, she was also a member of the community of the Sisters of Notre Dame at Trinity, and her devotion to the religious life was profound. Her faith was central to all of her life’s work, and in her scholarship, teaching and many speeches we find abundant examples of the Church’s ideal integration of knowledge and faith in Catholic higher education. In this, she embodied Trinity’s motto Scientia Ancilla Fidei – Knowledge the Servant of Faith.
May the power, wisdom and love of the Most Holy Trinity go with Sister Margaret!