Longtime Barry University president and Miami activist Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin dies at 90

MIAMI SHORES, FLA. (WSVN) - Barry University is mourning the death of its longtime president, Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin.

Sister Jeanne passed away at the age of 90, Tuesday.

She spent much of her career as president of the university, from 1981 to 2004.

In 2005, she became chancellor of the university.

Those who followed her efforts remember her for being a champion of access to education.

“From the beginning of the early ’80s, Sister Jeanne was always extremely committed to providing access to students at Barry and higher education,” said co-worker Angela Scott at Sister Jeanne’s 80th birthday in 2009.

In response to the kind words shared at the birthday ceremony, Sister Jeanne spoke about what the school meant to her.

“A place where there’s a presence of beauty in the goodness of the human family,” she said, “and sometimes we need to take a good look at the beauty of the human family because sometimes what we see we have to remember that that’s the abnormal. This love is the normal.”

Wherever she went, Sister Jeanne filled the room with her signature charm.

“This heart, this 80-year-old heart, it is filled with the joy of a kid’s first birthday,” she said, “where you put the hand in the cake.”

O’Laughlin loved life and hugs.

She was known for being a strong promoter and fundraiser.

Under her leadership, Barry University expanded in size, enrollment and academics.

She earned numerous awards and accolades for her service to the South Florida community.

But many in South Florida remember her for her role in the Elián Gonzalez saga.

Then U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, calling on her friend O’Laughlin to host a meeting between the boy, his family in Miami and his grandmothers from Cuba in January 2000.

“Grandmothers need something. They can’t just talk about what happened. I mean, eventually there has to be something interactive,” said O’Laughlin at the time, “so we’ll have puzzles and toys and coloring books. I’ve babysat quite a bit in my life, and coloring books have been my salvation.”

O’Laughlin’s home became neutral ground for sides in this custody battle.

“I thought she is a great woman, and she made me feel really good, and she gave support to me, my father and my uncle,” said Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elián’s cousin. “We went there very scared and very frightened of what was going to happen in that house, and I thank God that I had the opportunity to visit her house and to meet her.”

Despite her impact on more global matters, O’Laughlin’s heart always made its way back to Barry University, and she was always welcomed with open arms.

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