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Our Rich History: Sister Margaret Stallmeyer, from interim president to replacement for Dr. Joseph Lee

By Raymond G. Hebert, PhD.
Thomas More University 

Part 43 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021 

When Dr. Joseph Lee departed Thomas More College after the 2003–2004 academic year following only two years as president, the board of trustees looked within its ranks and named one of its own, Sister Margaret Stallmeyer, CDP, as the interim president. Sister Margaret was well known to the Thomas More community and much appreciated as a board member for her wide range of administrative experience and her extensive involvement in the Northern Kentucky community.

Sr. Margaret Stallmeyer, CDP was the 13th president of Thomas More College/University. (Thomas More University Archives)

Sister Margaret was a 1968 graduate of Thomas More College, which was followed by two decades as a teacher and administrator in two high schools within the Diocese of Covington. In addition, during those years and afterwards, she served as the treasurer for the Diocese of Lexington as well as its tribunal chief judge, thus utilizing her additional credentials of a Masters in Education from Xavier University and her law degree in canon law from the Catholic University of America (1987). Once settled back in Northern Kentucky, she served on the board of governors of the Canon Law Society of America; on the board of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the St. Elizabeth Medical Center board for ten years (including four as the chair) and the Thomas More College board of trustees. It was from the latter position that she was called upon for a greater role.

As the interim president during the 2004-2005 academic year, Sister Margaret focused on communication between constituencies where there had been difficulties during the previous two years. She also began the process for a strategic plan that would be crucial for the institution as it looked to the second half of the decade. In particular, her top priority became reclaiming the need for re-establishing a “culture” linked to the institutional mission as a Catholic diocesan institution. In her words:

Margaret Stallmeyer and Bishop Foys from the Fall 2009 Moreover publication. President Margaret Stallmeyer received the Monsignor John F. Murphy Award. (Thomas More University Archives)

“I have come to fully realize how much Thomas More has to offer its students and the community… [and] I look forward to working with the Thomas More community to advance our mission – to develop and sustain challenging undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs of study marked by superior teaching and scholarship within the Catholic intellectual tradition where faith and reason are integrated” (Moreover, Spring 2005, p. 2).

Sister Margaret appreciated the importance of the faculty in that equation and spent that first year mending the fences between the administration and the faculty. This was helped by the sincerity and mutual respect built up through previous interactions.

After a successful year internally with a noticeable increase in admissions applications and retention rates, as well as fundraising projections, it was not a surprise when William J. Zeck, the board chair, announced that: “The Board and Bishop Foys were very pleased with the progress that took place under Sister Margaret’s leadership as Interim President … [adding that] her accomplishments in the areas of communications, programs and major funding initiatives made it clear that she was the right person not only to lead but to advance the institution. Her energy and enthusiasm have permeated through the College community” (Moreover, Spring 2005, p. 2). The announcement was made in December and the inauguration of Sr. Margaret as the 13th President of Thomas More College was set for April 28-29, 2005. Context-wise, on that occasion, Thomas More was “serving 1450 students from 10 states and 10 foreign countries and the college offered 36 programs of study, 14 NCAA Division III athletic teams as part of the prestigious President’s Athletic Conference and over 25 student clubs and organizations” (Thomas More College Inauguration Brochure, April 29, 2005, TMU Archives).

William Zeck, Board of Trustees. (Thomas More University Archives)

On the occasion of her inauguration, some 44 institutions were represented, as Sister Margaret was welcomed by many institutional and community constituencies. The primary congratulatory remarks were delivered by Sister Margaret’s close friend and fellow member of the Sisters of Divine Providence, Sister Joan Boberg, the director of Catholic Social Services for the Diocese of Covington. In his remarks, as the faculty spokesperson, philosophy professor and college chaplain, Fr. Gerald Twaddell, reminded all present of the importance of the president’s partnership with the faculty, “to bring the vision that we share, inspired by the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church and our patron, Saint Thomas More” (Presidential Inauguration Remarks, April 29, 2005, TMU Archives). The highlight that day was the reflection by Sister Margaret herself on her time as interim president and on what the future might bring. She began by reminding all of the roles played in the early years of the institution as Villa Madonna College, first by the Benedictine Sisters and later by the three orders who came together (including also the Sisters of Divine Providence and the Sisters of Notre Dame) despite differences in philosophy and traditions for a common purpose.

In Sister’s words, they agreed on three distinguishing characteristics for a college: “its Catholicity, its liberal arts education and its adaptability. While the first two now seem obvious they may not have been so back in the 1920s but it was the adaptability that saved the day on many occasions.” For instance, Sister Margaret mentioned that the three communities of sisters had originally committed to specific departments of study in order to fully staff the early college (Presidential Inauguration Remarks, April 29, 2005, TMU Archives).

Sr. Joan Boberg, CDP (middle), flanked by Mary Schroeder (left) and Martha Schroeder (right) at Thomas More College. (Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library)

Sister Margaret reiterated the importance of a liberal arts education and its link to the Catholic intellectual tradition. She concluded by adding that “while Thomas More College is very different today than it was in 1921, what is important has remained the same. A commitment to a liberal arts education, spirituality, and community are the unique gifts that we have and continue to offer to our students, our country, and our church.” Her final challenge was that the college and its constituencies never waver in achieving that goal. As a closing message, Sister Margaret committed, just as had been the case since the 1920s, to the “forming of graduates who were ‘disciplined thinkers and ethical leaders.’ ” The 1920s had been connected to the 21st Century.

By the time Sister Margaret had reached the 2005-2006 academic year and reflected back, it was clear that she had not only settled into her new “life” but had “charged full speed ahead.” The college publication Moreover, in reflecting on her early years as president, spoke to the continued development of the Strategic Plan (2005-2010); the securing of a $1,175,000 grant towards a 2.5 million science renovation project; an institution-wide “review of the College’s Catholic identity”; and a targeted effort to “better connect with the College’s internal and external communities” (Moreover, Spring 2005, p. 2).

Fr. Twaddell, Department of Philosophy and Chaplain of Thomas More University. (Courtesy of the Diocese of Covington)

Clearly, in accomplishing these, Sister Margaret was no longer just an interim president. In a short period of time, she had put her permanent imprint on the future of Thomas More College by taking the institution to a new level, while still keeping true to a respected and older tradition.

Dr. Raymond G.  Hebert  is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu .

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

Sr. Margaret Stallmeyer’s Presidential Inauguration Brochure. (Thomas More University Archives)

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