From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | May 26, 2017
By Karen Herzog

Sister Joel Read, the longtime leader of Alverno College whose vision of placing abilities over grades put her among the nation’s top college innovators, died shortly before midnight Thursday. She was 91.

For nearly 35 years, Read led her alma mater on Milwaukee’s south side with warmth, determination and energy. The women’s college was a reflection of her trailblazing approach, but her influence reached far beyond campus. She was involved in local and national academic issues, and had an international network of contacts.

In conversation, she was always looking ahead to the next project or advocating for what she saw as the next needed change — often with a charming impatience.

“You couldn’t ask for a fuller life,” close friend Frank Miller reflected Friday, hours after her death. “If you measure people by how much good they’ve done for others, she towers over the rest of us… She wanted to get to know God better, and now she has. I’m happy for her, but sad for us.”

Alverno President Andrea Lee notified the campus community of Read’s passing in an email sent at  5:58 a.m. Friday. Read had several medical complications during the past few weeks, the email said, and “passed peacefully surrounded by family and sisters who loved her.”

In her retirement letter to the Alverno community in 2003, Read credited the strong commitment of faculty, staff, administration and the board of trustees for the college achieving its distinctive standing.

“So this evening as she leaves us in body — but never in spirit — to encounter the God she served through her incredible life work, we all stand to honor and further her legacy of developing strong, independent, educated women,” Lee wrote in her email.  “Women ready to to take risks and to impact our world for the better. Women who will make us and her forever proud. Alverno women.”

In a public statement, Lee described Read as “a courageous and pioneering leader who not only strengthened but embodied Alverno’s mission to educate strong women.” Through her tireless work and countless achievements at Alverno, in the Milwaukee community and elsewhere, her impact knows no bounds, Lee said.

“The Alverno community deeply mourns her passing, but we vow to carry on the incredible legacy she leaves behind.”

She was a demanding leader. “But by gosh, you want the good ones to be stubborn and demanding,” said Miller, who worked closely with Read for 10 years as her assistant vice president of marketing and communications, and visited her frequently in her later years.

Send your video memories of Sister Joel Read

A member of the School Sisters of St. Francis since 1945, Read was equally at home with national figures and those who joined her at Mass, and was somewhat legendary for keeping up with an array of friends through handwritten notes and cards.

She was a fierce advocate for women’s rights. She was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women in 1966, and President Gerald Ford appointed her to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year in 1975. Just a month ago, Read spoke with a feminist theory class at Alverno taught by the director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program.

The school, rooted in Catholic tradition and designed to empower future leaders in their fields, has a reputation for opening doors to people who otherwise did not see college in their future. Today, Alverno’s enrollment is roughly 2,200, about a quarter of whom are graduate students. Forty-five percent of the undergrad population comes from the city of Milwaukee, and 44% are women of color. Nearly seven in 10 are first-generation college students.

First, a teacher

Read’s ultimate love was teaching. Prior to becoming Alverno’s president in 1968, she taught history and chaired the history department.

Her vision for learning guided development of a distinctive ability-based, “assessment-as-learning” curriculum rolled out in 1973. The approach still draws educators from around the world to visit Alverno and see it in action.

RELATED: Like mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, woman graduates from Alverno College

The basic premise: As students develop knowledge in academic disciplines, they should also master the complex skills needed to put that knowledge to use. The focus should be on developing abilities, rather than making grades. Students need to be able to demonstrate skills and knowledge.

Under her leadership, Alverno launched one of the first internship programs in the country and initiated Weekend College targeted at working women.

“Take risks,” she once told Alverno graduates. “Don’t ever think that something can’t be done. It can. Opportunity is everywhere.”

Miller said he was “one of the lucky ones” who got to spend a lot of time with her. “I listened a lot. She was worth listening to… A lot of Milwaukee beat a path to her door to get advice from her, and she gave it.”

National leaders in political and education circles also sought her counsel. President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the National Council on the Humanities. Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton invited her to the White House to discuss educational policy.

In the 1986 book, “The Many Lives of Academic Presidents,” she was singled out as one of a handful of college presidents who broke educational ground in the past 100 years.

Active retirement

Read retired in 2003 as one of the nation’s longest serving college presidents. But she wasn’t one to idle in retirement. She remained an energetic, dedicated force in pursuing big goals in local and national reform efforts.

Among Read’s retirement projects was tackling the problems of Milwaukee Public Schools. She became chair of the education committee of the influential civic group, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and convinced the group to commit several hundred thousand dollars toward development of a strategic plan for MPS.

After a stroke in December 2008, Read told Marquette University Law School fellow and longtime former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel education reporter Alan Borsuk that she was quite unhappy the stroke was interfering with her work. She was 83 at the time.

The stroke occurred the day after a successful heart bypass surgery. Her mind was not affected, but her left side was paralyzed. She regained much of the use of her left arm after months of therapy, but generally used a wheelchair because her left leg did not “perform as a leg should.”

In 2012, Read was honored with a national award named after one of the most influential figures in higher education, the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburg, C.S.C. The award given by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities recognized her outstanding contributions and extended service to Catholic higher education.

Among her other honors, she was the first recipient of both the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Anne Roe Award and the Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership’s Lifetime Leadership Award.

Top fund raiser

Born Janice Anne Read on Dec. 30, 1925, she grew up in Chicago. She was inspired to religious life by the nuns who taught her during elementary and high school, whom she later described as “very good to one another” and “a very joyful group.”

She took the religious name of Sister Joel in honor of her parents, Joseph and Ellen Read.

Read earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Alverno in 1948. She completed a master’s degree in history from Fordham University, where she also pursued doctoral studies.

She spent several years teaching at the Our Lady of Good Counsel parish school in Aurora, Ill. before returning to Alverno in 1955 to chair the history department.

After more than a decade of teaching, she was appointed Alverno’s sixth president in 1968.

She oversaw multi-million dollar fundraising campaigns that expanded the campus footprint, as well as scholarship and academic offerings.

“I don’t have any problem raising money,” she once said. “If I were asking for myself, forget it. When you’ve got something very worthwhile and you can see what it means to individual students, you see them transformed, you go for it.”

Alverno consistently receives high ratings in US News & World Report, which ranks universities and colleges annually. The New York Times, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and similar organizations have all singled out Alverno for praise.

A 2015 report by The Education Trust found Alverno had both the highest percentage (36.2%) of federal Pell Grant recipients and minority undergrads (35.7%) among Wisconsin colleges and universities. The Pell Grant program provides need-based grants to low-income students to promote access to post-secondary education.

The Alverno campus was reflective on Friday. The campus had lost not one, but two beloved sisters in the course of one day. Hours after announcing Read’s death, word went out that longtime Alverno educator Sister Leona Truchan, also died Thursday.

Truchan, 87, came to Alverno to teach biology in 1961. With the exception of two years away to complete her doctorate from Northwestern University, she taught Alverno women until her retirement in 2011.

More than one person observed that Read, as much as anyone, would have wanted to make sure that Truchan got her due.

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