Sister Mary Diez ‘67, SSSF and Sister Kathleen O’Brien ’67, SSSF grew up hundreds of miles apart. Diez was raised in Nebraska; O’Brien spent most of her youth in Milwaukee. But their paths intersected in the early 1960s when both women made the decision to join the School Sisters of St. Francis.
Both were educated by School Sisters who made a tremendous impact on the young women. “I was very impressed by the Sisters who taught me in high school,” Diez said. “They were very smart, very dedicated and they worked together as a community. Those were all things I valued.”
“The School Sisters were always forward-thinking in terms of education, yet very down to earth when it came to dealing with the needs of the people,” O’Brien said. “I saw a seriousness of purpose in them, but also a sense of joy, a sense of fun. I got the sense the community life wasn’t just people praying on their knees everyday but also people enjoying community life.”
In 1963, both women moved to Milwaukee and simultaneously began their religious training and college education at Alverno. Diez majored in English and minored in French, theatre and secondary education; her heart was set on being a teacher. O’Brien studied both history and math.
After earning their Alverno College degrees in 1967 and professing their final vows in 1970, both embarked on teaching careers. Diez taught English, humanities and French to middle and high school students in Nebraska and Iowa while O’Brien taught grade school and math and American government in Nebraska and South Dakota. Although neither woman imagined they would someday return to Alverno to help reshape the College, both returned in 1976 to help launch Weekend College.
By then, O’Brien had already taken her first, albeit unexpected, steps into the world of business education. “I’d been elected to what was called the Provincial Team and since I was the youngest member, they said, ‘Oh, you get to do all the financial work.’ Well, I knew absolutely nothing. I couldn’t even balance the checkbook.”
She learned, though, and when Sister Joel Read, then president of Alverno, asked her, “Do you think you’d be interested in starting the business school at Alverno?” O’Brien managed not to faint. Instead, she said, “Let me give it a try.” Within months, she was enrolled in the MBA program at Vanderbilt University, and between her first and second year at Vanderbilt, she developed Alverno’s School of Business.
So when Alverno started Weekend College in 1976, O’Brien was naturally asked to head up the business program. Diez helped establish the Professional Communication degree. “At the time, most communications majors had courses like Rhetoric in the Sixteenth Century,” Diez said. “We thought, ‘That’s not really useful in today’s world.’”
Instead, Diez, O’Brien and other founders of Weekend College built a powerhouse program that provided women with the skills they needed to succeed in the workforce. “I remember talking to some of the first women who started in the weekend program, and they were so appreciative,” O’Brien said. “Still today, those are some of our most loyal and energetic alums because they are so appreciative of what Alverno offered.”
Alverno, though, wasn’t done with either O’Brien or Diez; and they weren’t through with Alverno either. Diez was asked to revitalize the School of Education and did so with grace and enthusiasm. “I remember Sister Joel Read calling me into her office and saying, ‘I want you to reconnect us, locally, in the state and nationally,’” Diez said. “That was in 1984. In 1992, I was elected president-elect of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.”
During her time as dean of the School of Education, Diez emerged as an essential community voice on education; she won both the prestigious David G. Imig Award for Distinguished Achievement in Teacher Education and Marquette’s Education Advocate Award.
O’Brien moved from the School of Business into Academic Affairs. She continues to serve as Alverno’s vice president of Academic Affairs and recently received the Sacagawea Award from Professional Dimensions. The award honors trailblazing women who have made significant commitments to their careers and communities, yet O’Brien is quick to acknowledge the women who came before her.
“All the things I’ve done in my life would not have happened without the School Sisters of St. Francis,” O’Brien said. “They’ve given me a wonderful life, a reason to get up every morning and a groundedness in what it means to be human, in a community, and to care about things beyond myself.”