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Obituary of Jacqueline Grennan Wexler: visionary educator

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 26, 2012 - Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, a noted educator and former president of Webster University who transferred control of the institution away from the Catholic Church, died in her sleep on Jan. 19, 2012, in Orlando, Fla. She was 85.

A member of the Webster faculty since 1959, Wexler served as president of the school in the late 1960s, as much a time of transition there as it was in the rest of the country. She was part of the leadership team that helped move the school from a women's college to a coeducational institution, a multi-year process that was completed during her tenure. In 1967, she was able to sever ties to the church and place the campus under the leadership of an independent board.

In 1970, Wexler became president of Hunter College in New York where she served during an era of tumultuous Vietnam-era campus activism, presiding over the eventual creation of a new campus senate with student representation. There is now a Jacqueline Grennan Wexler Library at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 68th Street.

Recognized nationally as a leader in education, Wexler was tapped by two presidential administrations and served on the steering committee that would eventually create Head Start.

Mary Hupcey, a Webster alumnae and daughter of Wexler's first cousin, now living in New Jersey, recalled Wexler as a dynamic figure with a deep passion for education.

"She was like a firecracker," she said. "She had such energy and could see into the future, knew where she was taking things. She had a vision of where this wonderful gift of education could take us all."

Visionary Leadership At Webster

That commitment to advancing the science of learning included educating the educators themselves. Under her leadership, Webster was among the first schools in the country to pioneer a Masters of Arts in Teaching.

Other educational initiatives Wexler brought to town included the Madison Project, an emerging philosophy of teaching mathematics and the creation of the College School, a laboratory K-8 private school that is now an independent entity.

Wexler gave a boost to a variety of local institutions including the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, located on the Webster University campus. She played a central role in securing funds from businessman Conrad Hilton to erect the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts where Rep productions are staged.

Peter Sargent, dean of the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, said that, like the Masters in Teaching, the theater program was an expression of the philosophy that Wexler brought to Webster of using professionals in the field to provide a real-world learning experience for students.

"Her belief was that you blended what was happening in the profession with the theory that happens in the classroom," he said.

St. Louisan Helen Hagen is an alumnae who worked closely with Wexler during her tenure. She said Wexler guided Webster through a turbulent time when many alumns felt alienated by the changes that were sweeping through school. She said that, even before her term as president, Wexler was part of a visionary leadership team that initiated many new ideas at the school.

"They didn't want to change the spiritual value of the institution but they did want to make it more available to more people and make it a more viable part of the community," she said. "It was during her tenure that it really took hold and became what it is today."

A Target For Both Sides

Wexler was no stranger to controversy - and it came from both the right and the left. At first she drew the ire of conservatives after having Webster break its ties with the Roman Catholic Church. Looking back, Wexler told the Post-Dispatch in 2007 that she knew she had to act when church leaders told her to dismiss faculty members whose theology they did not agree with.

Then she found herself targeted by the left while presiding over a Hunter University campus riven with protests over funding cuts and American involvement in Vietnam. She initially tried to talk to the students, who shouted her down, and had to call the police after being barricaded in her office. Recalling her experiences from earlier battles in St. Louis, she said, "Zealotry is the enemy."

Five years ago, she received an honorary degree from Webster in recognition of her contributions to the school.

In a condolence statement on the university website, current Webster president Beth Stroble called the school's transfer to independent governance just one milestone in an "impressive line of achievements" for her predecessor.

"The seeds of change that Wexler planted have transformed Webster into a vastly different institution," she said. "The university has grown to become the only Tier 1, private, nonprofit university with more than 100 campuses across the United States, Europe and Asia."

Wexler's achievements also came outside of education as well. During the 1980s, she served as president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, an honor Hupcey recalled Wexler being "very, very proud of."

Wexler grew up on farm in Illinois, the youngest of four children. Born Jean Grennan, she later took a new first name to honor her deceased brother Jack. She would go on to become a Sister of Loretto but left the order in the 1960s, eventually marrying Paul Wexler and adopting his two children. She is survived by her husband of Orlando, Fla.; a son, Wayne Wexler of New York, a daughter, Wendy Branton of Wayne, Pa., two sisters, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Burial will take place Saturday in Rock Falls, Ill. Webster University will hold its own public memorial service at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 8 in the Winifred Moore Auditorium in Webster Hall.

David Baugher is a freelance writer. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.