We're Glad You're Here

By Sally Anne Flecker | Spring 2013

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Notre Dame's first female business majors, who arrived 40 years ago this year, recall an atmosphere that was always challenging, sometimes welcoming.

There were cameras popping out from behind the bushes to catch sight of women walking to class back when Notre Dame went coed in 1972. That was annoying enough. But Christie Gallagher Sever(ACCT ’76) remembers news crews setting up their lighting stands and cameras in her dorm room. “Just go about doing what you’re normally doing,” they told her, “and we’ll record you.” So Sever and her roommates did. “What we were normally doing,” she says, “well, we were playing poker, actually.”

A poker game was not quite the story the news director was expecting. That footage never aired. The evening news showed another room instead where the girls were being more girly, says Sever. That was the more obvious story, of course. Women had invaded this serious male bastion, putting frilly curtains on dorm windows and Lord knows what else. The more interesting story, though, was not so much that women were there. It was the way these women were so ready to inhabit this place, to sail out into this world and take it on. “Most of the women were coming in at the top or near the top of their class,” recalls Sharon Zelinski Haverstock (MARK ’76). “They were going to be serious about what they were doing.” It wasn’t about succeeding in a man’s world. It was about succeeding. Period.

And nowhere was that more clear than in the business school. That day in the dorm room wasn’t the last time that Sever found herself in the spotlight as a woman in a predominately male environment. In the business school, it wasn’t unusual for a class to have one, maybe two, women on the roster—especially in accounting and finance. But in many ways, it was beside the point. “You were aware of the disparity of numbers of each gender in each class,” she says, “but once you got over that, your focus was on trying to learn the material and do well on the tests and the papers.”

Maureen Creighton Downs (FIN ’76) says the pressure to go toe to toe with the boys was incredible. “If you’re the only girl in class, you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll get called on every day,” she says. “You might get called on by the professor who is not happy that girls are there who wants to put you on the spot. You might get called on by the professor who says, ‘Gosh, I want to give a woman a chance to shine.’ So you’re always visible. And when you’re visible, it gives you the opportunity to shine or to be an abysmal failure. You had to bring your A-game every single day. I think that was a good thing.”

In her sophomore year, Downs and a male student had identical top scores on the first test of the semester. It so happened that the two had sat next to each other—not by design, but because of alphabetical seating. “It was clear there was some sense in the professor’s mind that perhaps there had been some cheating,” she recalls. When the next test came around, he gave them different versions of the test. Again, they tied each other for the highest score.“At that point, he was pretty convinced that I wasn’t cheating off my male counterpart,” she says. “But those were the kinds of things—there were suspicions for the woman actually to be at the top of the class. I remember feeling so great after that second test because there could be no question that I could compete with anyone in the class.” Indeed, Downs graduated No. 1 in the business college. She went on to get her CPA, and then her law degree. “Women needed hard credentials to prove themselves in the business world,” she says. Today, she is president of Chicago-based Rosenthal Collins Group, a major player in the global futures and derivatives markets, and on the board of the National Futures Association, the watchdog organization for the U.S. futures industry.

Business was a less-than-traditional path for women in the early 1970s. Some of the women were influenced by older brothers already studying business at Notre Dame. Others had fathers who would discuss their businesses at the dinner table. Still others had fathers who counseled them to pursue a practical degree so they could be financially independent. Susan Nordstrom Lopez (MGMT ’75), president of Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, had strong female role models in her mother, grandmother and aunt who ran a very successful audiovisual chain in the Midwest.

Debi Dell (MGMT ’76) was a pipsqueak in the early ’60s when her father, John W. Dell (Law ’62), attended law school at Notre Dame. Even as a kindergartener, she was hell-bent on attending Notre Dame, too. That’s all there was to it, in her mind. Fortunately, the gates swung open just in time—especially since Notre Dame was the only school she applied to. “The first two years were particularly difficult,” says Dell, who is currently on the Notre Dame Senior Alumni Board. “We were usually asked for the woman’s viewpoint—even in accounting and statistics courses. More was expected because of the hype surrounding our initial selection.” There were very few role models, she says. She can only remember having two women professors.

Dell, who also holds advanced degrees from Loyola-Chicago and the University of Miami, is program director for IBM’s Project Management Center of Excellence in Boca Raton, Fla. She is responsible for its 42,000 project- and program-delivery managers worldwide. One of the benefits of being a minority in the classroom, she believes, was that it prepared the female students for what the business world was like. “Women were not, in general, in visible positions of authority in large corporations,” she says. “We were prepared to go into any situation and answer questions and be in the spotlight. That was the training that Notre Dame didn’t know they were providing. Immediately, when I went to work for IBM, I could hold my own in any level of engagement—which, at 22 or 23 years of age, is pretty good.”

For several years before the television crews showed up in 1972, women from Saint Mary’s College had been quietly taking classes at Notre Dame. Because the two schools had been planning a merger, students on both campuses had been allowed to enroll in classes at either. By the time that plan was abruptly called off, shortly before Christmas break in 1971, Saint Mary’s students majoring in business were already taking all of their classes on the Notre Dame campus. Some described the news as “gut-wrenching.” In order to continue as a business major, they would need to apply to transfer to Notre Dame. Misinformation abounded about whether everyone would be granted admission. “Here we are trying to take finals,” says Cathy Ghiglieri (FIN ’74), who was a sophomore at the time, largely considered to be the hardest year because of the block of required introductory business classes. “We are told we will have to apply to move our records. We have to apply to get into the place we already are,” she remembers.

Once safely transferred, however, Ghiglieri appreciated the convenience of living in Walsh Hall and not having to travel back and forth between classes and meals several times a day.

Ghiglieri’s interest in business was encouraged by her father James P. Ghiglieri Sr. (FIN ’51), a bank president. When she was in high school, he gave her a $100 to invest in the stock market. “I learned to love finance from a young age,” she says. (At Notre Dame, Professor Ray Kent recognized her name. Her father had taken the same finance class from him.) Ghiglieri, who has had her own bank consulting firm for the past 14 years, started her career as a bank regulator with the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. She went on to become the first female Texas Banking Commissioner.

“Being at Notre Dame in the first class of women was a life-changing experience,” she says. “I became used to being the only woman in the group. I became used to being the only woman to do something. It definitely toughened me up for what lay ahead in the business world,” she says. As a banking regulator, she was the only woman on the team—and the only woman in the room when they were discussing findings. At the Texas Department of Banking, there’s a long wall with portraits of all those who have served as banking commissioner. Ghiglieri is still the only woman. (In the portrait, she is wearing a maternity dress.)

Diana Sisson Peacock (ACCT ’74) married her sweetheart back home at the end of her junior year and returned to Notre Dame in the fall to complete her degree. She and her husband, who had gotten a job in South Bend, lived in an apartment off-campus. Peacock missed 10 days of class with an illness at the beginning of the semester. She finally went to the Notre Dame infirmary and was told she was pregnant. Peacock talked it over with her finance teacher, for whom she used to babysit. Should she take the semester off? The professor advised against it, worried she would never finish her degree. Peacock remembers being a little concerned that the administration wouldn’t allow her to attend if they knew she was pregnant. She decided just not to mention it.

By the end of spring semester, though, her pregnancy was obvious. One of her classmates, she found out later, brought his car keys with him to class every day in case she went into labor and needed to get to the hospital quickly. The baby was due May 3, but arrived before final exams. One professor let her take her “pass grade” for the class, but her macroeconomics professor wouldn’t budge, though. Peacock had no one to watch the baby, so she put the child in a carrier and showed up to take the test along with her classmates. The professor hadn’t quite expected that. He was afraid the baby might disturb the other students, she says, so he made Peacock take the test in the hallway. She passed, distractions and all.

Most of the first women agree that Notre Dame wasn’t really ready for them. Ladies rooms, for instance, were notoriously hard to find. Little was available in terms of athletics. Christie Sever remembers when she selected racquetball as a rotation for gym class. “They put the three of us women together in the same racquetball court,” she says, “which was fine. But they needed four per court, so they put in a guy who had broken his foot.” Sever, who went on to earn her MBA and CPA, worked in management in the finance department of the Inland Steel Company in Chicago. She now owns and operates her own business.

Still, Dede Lohle Simon (MARK ’74) found herself comfortable in the Notre Dame environment. “No doors were closed to us,” she recalls. “I didn’t try out for the football team, of course.”

The door to the marching band may not have been closed shut, but Simon wasn’t quite able to squeeze herself through. She had been a majorette in high school. Maybe they hadn’t thought of having majorettes, she thought. So she made an appointment with the band leader. He listened quietly as she laid out her case for having majorettes join the band.

When she finished, he said politely, “No, Dolores. Not at this time. Thank you very much.” Simon shrugged off the defeat, though. She had other things in the works. Her older brother was a professional broadcaster, and she decided to follow in his footsteps. “I never thought I was blazing a trail,” she says. “If there was something I wanted to do, I’d just go for it.”

She did well enough at WSND, the student radio station at the top of O’Shaughnessy Hall, that she was invited to be the first female to do color commentary for a Notre Dame football game broadcast to servicemen overseas. Simon started her professional life in the steel industry and directed two chambers of commerce in Illinois. Most recently, she has moved into the entrepreneurial world as general manager of the Midwest region for a German-engineered, green-building product made out of rice hulls.

Starting out in the steel industry as well was Sharon Zelinski Haverstock, who retired in January as executive vice president of Scot Forge, a custom metal forging manufacturer in Spring Grove, Ill. She had been with the firm for 32 years. When she was a senior at Notre Dame, a vice president of a metal service center had come to campus to recruit and take in a basketball game. “He said, ‘Sharon, if you can get through four years of coeducation at Notre Dame, the steel industry will never bother you,’” she remembers. “He said selling steel is like selling Kleenex. The only difference is it rusts and it sinks.”

She ended up taking the job in inside sales at Castle Metals in Franklin Park, Ill., outside Chicago. “At first, it was discouraging because somebody would call, and you would answer the phone, and they’d ask to speak to one of the gentlemen,” she recalls. “But you learn as much as you can and ask questions and hope you’ve got good mentors. Eventually what happens is you don’t have time for those guys, because you’re so busy with all the people who do that want to talk with you. ‘You can have all the gentlemen you want. You may not be as happy, but go ahead.’ Success really is the sweetest revenge.”

Haverstock says that she found herself in incredible company among her incoming class of freshman women at Notre Dame. “Most of the women were coming in at the top or near the top of their class,” she says. Whenever she has the chance to meet or talk with her old classmates, she says she’s struck by not only how well everyone is doing, but by how happy they are with what they’re doing. “Somehow I always thought, put us anyplace and we’ll end up succeeding because we’ll just get into it,” she says. “I mean, a discount on steel doesn’t do anything for me. But it’s like wherever you get put, you figure out how to do it. You make yourself happy.”