By Andrea Sisney and Brittany Ruess
Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, former Webster University president, died in her Florida home Thursday, Jan. 19. She was 85 years old.
Born Jean Marie Grennan in a small Illinois town, Wexler and her three siblings grew up on a farm. Her parents worked hard to educate both male and female children, an uncommon choice in the 1930s.
“She was very proud of being a farm girl,” her son, Wayne Wexler, said. “She said, ‘I’m from Sterling, Ill. My dad was a farmer and he tailed gas during the depression to get us through school.’ She was very proud of these things.”
After being the first girl to take a science class instead of home economics in her high school, Wexler went on to graduate Webster College in 1948 with degrees in English and mathematics.
Wexler joined the Sisters of Loretto in 1949, taking the name “Jacqueline” in honor of her deceased brother, Jack. She became a teacher, eventually instructing students at Nerinx Hall, right next door to her alma mater. She followed Sister Francetta Barberis back to Webster when Barberis was appointed president in 1958.
Wexler served as the face of Webster College from 1965-69. She became executive vice president and eventually president. Prof. Joe Schuster wrote in an unpublished history of Webster University that Wexler, “was, for many, the personification of Webster College.”
Perhaps the most notable and revolutionary change Wexler brought to Webster College was the transition from a Catholic institution to a secular, lay board school. Webster was the first Catholic college in America to break from the Church.
Schuster wrote that Wexler wanted to expand general education requirements and said in a 1965 speech that, “If we are to educate students whose power and drive to search within a discipline both liberates and compels them to search within other fields, we must create opening courses which are, indeed, open-ended, structured to induce a growing and deepening curiosity,” rather than restrict students with strict theological course requirements.
“That was critical to the college’s future,” Wayne Wexler said. “The bishops and what not of St. Louis made it very hard on her. She had enormous support from the Sisters of Loretto to get through that.”
It was this transition from the Catholic Church that allowed Webster to continue as a thriving school. The move helped fund a financially struggling institution, and opened opportunities for students that had been previously closed.
Diane Gartland, whose time at Webster College coincided with Wexler’s presidency, saw the change manifest on campus when the nuns stopped wearing their habits.
“I remember seeing a couple of the sisters, and I can’t remember where but it couldn’t have been on campus. It was some place where they were socializing, having cocktails,” Gartland, class of 1969, said. “We were all of age and all that, but I don’t think the younger women were appalled by it, they were just amazed.”
Gradually, she said, the entire institution began to change. Students were given more freedom to select their classes. As a freshman, Gartland said she was required to take theology and religion classes — traditional to a Catholic education. By her senior year, Gartland was taking a class called Black and White Civilization. In the course, the professor and students spent several classes discussing the democratic convention and the riots during it.
“We discussed, in class, if you want to get people’s attention you can’t dress like a hippie — you have to dress in business wear so that when the cops come to beat you up, it will look bad on the television,” Gartland said. “This was the type of stuff they were teaching us in the classroom. To us, this was very radical.”
At Gartland’s 1969 graduation, she and her fellow classmates walked to a nun playing the “Pomp and Circumstance” on the organ. Suddenly, the organ was disconnected and the music of Simon and Garfunkel played. The students danced their way to their seats.
“That really said it all,” Gartland said. “We started at Webster in a very traditional way, and we ended up in a very kind of expanded, open-minded, anything goes kind of way.”
Around this time, Wexler also asked to be dispensed from her vows. She explained the decision to remove both herself and Webster from the Church in an interview with Barbara Walters on the Today Show.
“It was not breaking with the Church,” Jacqueline Wexler said. “It was opening doors beyond that.”
Wexler only occupied the presidency for four years, choosing to leave in 1969 to marry Paul Wexler, a Jewish businessman from New York. They married on June 11 that year.
“He (Paul) loved her,” Wayne Wexler said. “None of us will ever recover from this loss, but he more than anybody. They were life-long friends, and husband and wife.”
When she met Paul Wexler, she also met his two children, Wendy and Wayne. In the early 1970s, she adopted the two children.
“She became mom right away,” Wayne Wexler said. “She was my mother much longer than my natural mom. She was always mom.”
She went on to serve as president of Hunter College for almost 10 years. At Hunter, Wexler opened admissions to all high school students in the area and began charging tuition. The new tuition caused students to riot and the campus was eventually closed at one point, Wayne Wexler said.
“She was under enormous stress,” Wayne Wexler said. “She walked into that and she was really magnificent and strong and forth right. She was battling with the academics — the professors, the students and the press. But, it was the right thing to do. She was a terrific administrator and was able to work the politics out so it was a success story.”
Jacqueline Wexler helped expand the Hunter campus with new buildings like a library, which was named in her honor. Wayne Wexler’s son is currently a senior at Hunter College.
Wayne Wexler said he misses the fun, laughter and camaraderie he shared with his mother. He misses their true mother-son relationship.
“I’ll miss that forever,” Wayne Wexler said. “It’s way too soon.”
A funeral service will be held for Wexler Saturday, Jan. 28 in Rockfalls, Ill. Webster Today announced Friday that a memorial service would take place on Webster’s campus in the near future. No date has been announced.
Background information on Jacqueline Wexler was contributed by Joe Schuster from an unpublished chapter in a history of the university.