January 12, 2016

Dr. Donna T. McCaffrey: A ‘renaissance person’ leaves a rich College legacy

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Dr. Donna T. McCaffrey ’73G, ’83Ph.D., and ’87G, a retired assistant professor of history who became an integral part of Providence College’s history while researching and recording it for more than 40 years, died Jan. 10, 2016, following a valiant battle with cancer. She was 66.

Dr. McCaffrey taught undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education courses at PC while earning three degrees at the College. She was a residence director who helped women integrate the all-male institution in the early-to-mid 1970s, a devout Catholic, and strong advocate for the College’s Catholic and Dominican traditions.

“In many respects, Donna was a renaissance person,” said her colleague, Dr. Paul F. O’Malley ’60, assistant professor of history. “She was a woman of great character, teaching, commitment, and talent.”

A native of New York City, Dr. McCaffrey graduated from Dominican College in Blauvelt, N.Y., in 1971, earning bachelor’s degrees in both history and psychology. That fall, she came to Providence College — where her uncle, Rev. Cornelius P. Forster, O.P., was head of the graduate school — to study for a master’s degree in history.

It was an exciting time to be on campus. The College was welcoming its first full undergraduate class to include women. Dr. McCaffrey was hired as one of the first resident assistants in Aquinas Hall. She played on the first women’s basketball team organized by Helen Bert, PC’s new coordinator of women’s athletics. She even helped to launch a women’s rugby club.

Dr. McCaffrey’s involvement with residence life lasted 14 years, until 1985, when she was appointed to the full-time PC faculty. She was named head resident of the dormitory in 1972 and assistant director of residence, under Rev. Walter J. Heath, O.P., in 1973. In that role, she was responsible for the Women’s Residence Program, and in addition to supervising staff, she lived in the women’s dormitories and was available to counsel students 24 hours a day.

Several faculty and staff members noted how Dr. McCaffrey kept in touch with “her girls” over the years and that many of these same women supported her in her illness.

“She always looked out for our well-being as women on the campus, first and foremost,” said Dr. Wanda Johnson Ingram ’75, senior associate dean of undergraduate studies. “She was there to support us, no matter what, on issues of color as well as gender. We would say, ‘For a white woman, my God, she gets it.’ She would have been one of those folks marching with Martin Luther King in a heartbeat.

“She was a very good soul who cared and believed in equal rights for everyone, and if she saw something she didn’t like, she’d call you on it right away.”

Dr. McCaffrey at the Lecture Hall: An Epilogue program last April.

Dissertation hits home
Dr. McCaffrey earned two master’s degrees from PC, one in history in 1973 and one in religious studies in 1987. In 1983, she was awarded a Ph.D. in history by the College. Her 522-page dissertation, “The Origins and Early History of Providence College Through 1947,” was written under the supervision of O’Malley, one of her history professors and the director of the Graduate History Program.

“Donna was a conscientious and hard-working student. That dissertation is still consulted today,” said O’Malley.

In “Lecture Hall: An Epilogue,” a lecture presented in April 2015 just before her retirement, Dr. McCaffrey noted that she had hoped to update the dissertation in time for the College’s centennial in 2017.

“I had planned to edit and bring the history to the present in time for the centennial, but time may be against me, as many of you know,” Dr. McCaffrey told an audience of colleagues, students, alumni, and friends in Aquinas Hall Lounge. “But hope always springs eternal.”

In 1992, the College published a booklet written by Dr. McCaffrey, Providence College: From the Beginning: Celebrating 75 Years of Values that Endure.

An underpinning of faith
Rev. John S. Peterson, O.P. ’57, chaplain of the National Alumni Association and a former College treasurer who has served PC for more than 45 years, said it was symbolic that Dr. McCaffrey died on the feast day of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Quoting the Gospel account for the day — “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased” — he said she “lived in the present moment” and “fell back on her faith” when she was stricken with illness.

“When the Father looked on Donna, He didn’t see Donna or her cancer, but He saw his son in Donna and was pleased one more time,” said Father Peterson.

He said Dr. McCaffrey was “one of a kind,” and if she had any faults, “I never noticed them because of the honesty of her personality.”

Father Peterson recalled how she “singlehandedly” fought to make sure the name of the Peterson Recreation Center remained on the exterior of the façade when its removal was being contemplated to allow for the addition of the fitness center to the building. The building is named after Father Peterson’s late brother, Very Rev. Thomas R. Peterson, O.P. ’51, who served as PC ninth president from 1971-1985.

Dr. McCaffrey began teaching at PC in 1973 as a part-time instructor of history and also taught in the Development of Western Civilization Program. She was named instructor of history in 1985 and assistant professor of history in 1986, a position she held until her retirement on June 30, 2015. Though a member of the undergraduate faculty, she also taught graduate courses and School of Continuing Education (SCE) courses.

O’Malley called her a “much beloved professor” whose students “were uniformly well prepared.” From his viewpoint with the graduate program, particularly the Historic Methodology course, she was demanding — especially when it came to research, writing, and documenting historical research.

Dr. McCaffrey was assistant dean of undergraduate studies from 1994-1995 and coordinator of liberal arts studies for the SCE from 1998-2010. She was director of the Asian Studies Program and a member of the Faculty Senate. Her research interests included PC history, 18th century British politics, women’s roles in history, medieval and church history, American history, and American Catholic history.

When Dr. McCaffrey retired, Dr. Peter R. Costello, professor of philosophy, wrote her a note praising her for always reminding colleagues to remain true to PC’s original mission — to reach out to first-generation college students and to working adults in the SCE — while supporting Dominicans, including Dominican sisters who had served the College.

“To say I have always been comfortable with you would be a misstatement,” wrote Costello. “For I have always been a little afraid of you. You speak and carry yourself with an authority that I cannot match. But you have always done that side by side with a kindness that makes me love you and what you stand for.”

Dr. McCaffrey established and raised funds for the Rev. Cornelius P. Forster, O.P. Scholarship Fund at PC. A devout Catholic all her life, she was a Eucharistic minister and active in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. She also was an affiliate of the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt, N.Y., where she assisted the sisters with chores and cooking during the summer months.

A lasting imprint
Her love for the Dominican ethos and community was one of many obvious traits for which Dr. McCaffrey was known, her colleagues said.

“Her legacy is being brave enough to speak her own mind. She was so honest,” said Ann Manchester-Molak ’75, assistant to the president and executive vice president in the Office of the President.

Manchester-Molak added that Dr. McCaffrey was one of several female faculty members and administrators who were “the most welcoming” of the female community during the transitory time to coeducation in the 1970s. She included in that group Dr. Sally J. Thibodeau, retired associate professor of education; Sister Leslie Ellen Straub, O.P., associate professor of anthropology in sociology; and Mrs. Bert.

O’Malley agreed that Dr. McCaffrey’s role in facilitating coeducational life at PC “will be an enduring legacy.” He also said that the way she touched the lives of tens of thousands of students — by some estimates, more than 48,000 — and her “important and pioneering” contributions as a College historian will be everlasting.

Dr. McCaffrey’s contributions to the College were recognized on several occasions. Among the honors, she was presented with the Faculty/Staff Award by the National Alumni Association (NAA) in 2003 for her exemplary service, loyalty, and dedication. She also received the Very Reverend Vincent C. Dore Award from the Greater Providence Chapter of the NAA, the Mal Brown Club, in 1990. The award recognized her “everlasting devotion” to the well-being of PC and her years of service to women graduates.

Dr. McCaffrey is survived by a sister, Rosanne (Nancy) McCaffrey Hicks ’89G; nieces Denise T. O’Donnell, Dr. Lisa-Mary O’Donnell ’97, and Nancy V. O’Donnell ’01; nephew Michael P. O’Donnell, Jr. ’99; and 12 great-nieces and great-nephews.

A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Jan. 16 at The Sisters of St. Dominic of Blauvelt Mother House Chapel, Blauvelt, N.Y. Burial was in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, N.Y.

The College celebrated a memorial Mass for Dr. McCaffrey’s soul on Feb. 17 in St. Dominic Chapel.

Donations in her memory may be made to the Rev. Cornelius P. Forster Scholarship Fund at Providence College in care of the Office of Institutional Advancement, 1 Cunningham Square, Providence, RI 02918-0001, or to the Forster-McCaffrey Scholarship Program at Dominican College.

We invite you to share your favorite story or thoughts about Dr. McCaffrey at marcom@providence.edu. Comments will be posted on the College’s online magazine site at magazine.providence.edu.