“You have to be flexible, coachable, be brave and be a risk taker.”

These are the words Sister Toni Ann Palermo ’66 has lived by. It is no surprise then that Sister Toni, along with Cecelia Gore ’92, ’08, executive director of the Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation; and Bud Selig, commissioner emeritus of Major League Baseball recently received the values in Action Award from the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.  

Sister Toni’s values are evident in every endeavor she undertakes — and she has undertaken a lot in her lifetime. Her journey includes an assortment of seemingly unconnected roles: School Sister, teacher, lifelong student, dancer/choreographer, Mary Kay Cosmetics Sales Director, licensed electrologist, and psychotherapist. She also played professional baseball and softball and was in the first group of professional baseball women inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Each opportunity came about because of her willingness to listen to others, be it the voice of a teacher, coach, neighbor or God.

Sister Toni began playing baseball and softball at age 10, after her physical education teacher encouraged her to try out for the Parichy Bloomer Girls Professional Softball Farm Team. A year later scouts from the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (about which the movie A League of Their Own was made) invited her to travel to Cuba for spring training. A few years later, she was playing shortstop for the league.

With her charismatic personality, Palermo quickly became a team spokeswoman. She notes that a teammate had to wake her every morning for Mass because she had very little sleep due to late night radio interviews.

Baseball was a passion, but at 19 she could no longer resist another calling. She joined the School Sisters of St. Francis, which led her to Alverno, where she majored in English and History. She credits the faculty with changing her life.

“I had an excellent work ethic prior to Alverno, but my vocabulary was limited,” says Sister Toni, who spoke only Italian when she entered grade school.

After Palermo failed her first history test because she did not fully comprehend the questions, Sister Martine Hundelt ’40 quickly identified the problem and worked with her to improve her vocabulary and writing skills.

“That experience instilled in me the heart to reach out and help those who had difficulty in learning. However, that goes beyond teaching,” Sister Toni says. “When you help people believe in themselves, they will become more confident and succeed.”

Palermo took that lesson into her own classroom when she began teaching in grade schools, in Wisconsin and Illinois, and later for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the epitome of a lifelong learner.

She took classes at Loyola and DePaul Universities. She earned three master’s degrees (Physical Education, Educational Policy Studies and Psychiatric Social Work-Mental Health and Aging) and an interdisciplinary doctorate in six departments from the University of Wisconsin in areas encompassing Educational Policy Studies, Physical Education/Kinesiology, Counseling and Guidance, Communication Arts, Adult Education, Curriculum and Instruction Administration Supervision.

By happenstance, she even became a licensed electrologist. After a debilitating car accident, she was searching the Yellow Pages for a place to get her hair cut and found an electrology school. She wondered what that would entail. She thought that would be something to do while she was rehabbing from the car accident. She saw another opportunity to help others. Sister Toni developed electrology instructors, curriculums and began accrediting electrology schools nationwide.

Though she has used all of her degrees in different way, she says Alverno is where it all started.

“Nothing compared to Alverno, its president and the faculty,” Sister Toni says. “Alverno developed the creative, visionary spirit in me. Something was ignited.”

Presently, Sister Toni still practices psychotherapy, electrolysis and tutoring. About 10 years ago, a conversation with a neighbor led to another role.

The neighbor was helping a woman at her church who was trying to get out of poverty. Sister Toni took it as a sign from God to help her and others. She gave away all her furniture and downsized. Word got out, and she has been helping people find apartments, jobs and furniture since.

Once again, it all came down to listening to the needs of God’s people and acting. It is something she feels Alverno women are well-equipped to do.

“We were not put on the planet earth to do nothing. You have to look at what you have, share and work to make a difference in people’s lives,” she says.

She adds: “When you start doing things, you find good people willing to help, too. There is so much goodness in people. Goodness brings about goodness. My challenge to Alverno students is to see the needs surrounding society and the world and become a ‘change agent’ in people’s lives. Make a difference on our planet earth.”