It's another new building, for God's sake

Sunday, August 23, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The name, a little long, nonetheless fits.

The Jean Patrice Harrington, SC, Student Center is the first new building since the College of Mount St. Joseph opened in 1962, and I can't help wondering if any of the young people who will gather there know who she is. Really.

Behind the new building, the football team runs drills and Cincinnati's newest marching band, The Lion's Roar, taps a raggedy beat. Inside is a Children's Center, where students can drop off their kids for everything from skilled care to computer class. Cost: $2 an hour for infants and $1.50 for preschoolers.

Seniors, fresh-faced and polite, unpack boxes in the Leadership Suite. Nearby, a group tours the Wellness Suite -- medical and psychological services, spiritual development, nutrition counseling. There's a 2,000-seat gymnasium, a fitness center, racquetball and squash courts.

Dancer with a lead foot

All of this is done in the name of the immediate past president of the college. A Sister of Charity. A nun. An academic. An administrator. Gone from the college since 1987, she retired at age 64. Retired. Ha.

She has since chaired the Youth Collaborative and Miami University's board, been interim chief of Cincinnati State College and continues to act as a national advocate for children. They probably had to scramble to make sure she'd be in town for the Sept. 13 dedication. I wonder what the students have been told about her.

I'll bet they don't know that among Delhi cops she was famous for her lead foot. And that entering a religious community ended her days as a ballet dancer at the Denver Grand Opera.

Is it disrespectful of me to notice that she looks like a young Ingrid Bergman in a photo from those early years? I hope not. Few people are more deserving of respect than Sister Jean. For so many reasons, not the least of which is her exuberant, people-loving goodness.

Once, I saw her with Alzheimer's patients who were listening to piano music. Suddenly this 70-ish retired college president, this nearly life-long member of a religious order, whirled the length of the room. Dancing. She came to a breathless, unself-conscious halt right in the middle of the startled women.

They were no more shocked than I, who believed until I met Sister Jean that nuns took a vow of No Fun. And I certainly did not think of them as business dynamos.

During her 10 years at the Mount, Sister Jean Patrice Harrington wiped out $1 million worth of red ink and conducted the college's first capital campaign.

A daring rescue

"She literally saved this college when she came here in 1977," says the Mount's president, Sister Francis Marie Thrailkill. The Mount became coeducational during the Harrington years. And racially and economically diverse. Considering the times, it was probably not simply a rescue. It was a daring rescue.

Sister Francis knows every corner of this building named in honor of these achievements. She has prowled it for months, wearing a green hard hat over her thick, crisp, gray hair.

Her thoroughly likeable dimpled grin is a watt or two brighter than usual as she throws open the door of the new 70,000-square-foot center. Its buff brick connects to an adjacent building. An exact match, she says.

It's true. You can't tell where the old building ends and the new one begins. The structure does not need to announce its newness. The building is not really the point. God's work, that's what these women set out to do. Helping people lead better lives. Education, child care, diversity, health.

It is called the Jean Patrice Harrington Student Center, presided over by Sister Francis Marie Thrailkill. It is a monument to goodness.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at