Jacqueline Grennan Wexler: Former nun was activist, president of 2 colleges

January 24, 2012

By Ludmilla Lelis

January 21, 2012

Jacqueline Grennan Wexler was a pioneer throughout her career, sitting on corporate boards, leading the National Conference of Christians and Jews and serving as president of two colleges, Webster in St. Louis and Hunter in New York City.

She didn’t do it for her ego but because she wanted to help improve the lives of others, said her daughter, Wendy Branton of Wayne, Pa.

“She was a very modest, very humble person,” Branton said. “But if she had a decision to make that involved the welfare of others, she was so focused and so capable.”

Wexler died at her Orlando home Thursday. She was 85.

Born in 1926, she grew up on a farm in Rock Falls, Ill. She received her bachelor’s degree from Webster, which was founded by the Sisters of Loretto, an order of Catholic nuns. Wexler joined that order in 1948 under the name Jacqueline in memory of her brother, Jack, who had died.

Known as “Sister J,” she taught high-school math and English in El Paso, Texas, and St. Louis, then returned to Webster, rising the ranks to college president in 1965.

She led the college in its monumental step to separate from the Catholic Church.

“Webster College was the first Catholic institution to recognize the potential for growth and the quality of education as a secular institution,” current President Beth Stroble said in a statement.

Sister Jacqueline decided to leave the sisterhood in 1967, and two years later, she married Paul Wexler, a music-industry executive from New York City. She remained a devout Catholic her entire life, her daughter said.

Jacqueline Wexler was thrilled to adopt Paul’s children, Wendy and Wayne Wexler.

“At every birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas, she thanked my father and us for giving her a family,” her daughter said. “It was the one thing she did not expect to achieve in her life, and it was more important to her than all the groundbreaking accomplishments in her career.”

She moved to New York City and from 1970-79 served as president of Hunter, which is part of the City University of New York.

Current Hunter President Jennifer J. Raab remembered Wexler well from her own days as a student.

“I will be forever grateful for her mentorship, just as all of us at Hunter are grateful for her lasting impact on the College,” Raab said.

In the 1980s, as president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, she spoke frequently on interfaith issues in hopes of encouraging mutual respect among religions, her daughter said.

Wexler retired in 1990, and she and her husband moved to Orlando. She tutored math in the Orlando schools for several years. She also served on several boards, including the board of directors for United Technologies Corp., and received more than a dozen honorary degrees.

She relished the time she could spend as grandmother, and later, as great-grandmother, Branton said.

Along with her husband and daughter Wendy, she is survived by her son Wayne of New York City; sisters, Sue Brock of Indiana and Rita Burrows of Bothell, Wash.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

McDonald-Allen-Grennan Funeral Home, Sterling, Ill., is in charge of arrangements.

Originally published by the Orlando Sentinel