Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Camille Kliebhan has been with Cardinal Stritch University since 1955. Even though she just celebrated her 90th birthday, she still goes in to the office every day.
On April 7, hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the milestone birthday of Sr. Camille, Cardinal Stritch’s chancellor and past president, to commemorate her life accomplishments and honor what she has meant to her admirers.
After earning her doctorate in educational psychology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Sr. Camille joined the faculty of Cardinal Stritch in 1955, and subsequently served as dean of students, director of student teaching, department head of education and psychology, chair of the graduate division and vice president for academic and student affairs.
Pledged to be teaching president
As university president from 1974-91, she increased enrollment by nearly 5,000 students. Teaching a variety of courses throughout those years, she fulfilled a promise made during her inaugural pledge to be a “teaching president.”
Her community accomplishments include being the first woman to chair the Sacred Heart School of Theology board, and serving as first woman president of Wisconsin Foundation of Independent Colleges and Rotary Club. She still attends Rotary every month, retaining a 25-year perfect attendance record.
Currently university “chancellor,” meaning “past president” according to Sr. Camille, she continues her commitment to the school.
“I don’t know that I have any duties,” she admitted with a chuckle. “I’m here because the president allows me to be here. I sit in on his conferences, but I really don’t contribute much to them. It’s honorary.”
Proudest of nursing program
According to Sr. Camille, one of her university achievements stands above the rest.
“I’m very proud of establishing the nursing program here. We took a chance,” she said. An associate degree program began with 23 women. Recently, Sr. Camille was informed of a new master’s degree in nursing being introduced.
“I thought, ‘That’s how it started, the establishment of nursing,’” she said.
An additional highlight of Sr. Camille’s career is the founding of “Programs in Management for Adults,” now the College of Business and Management. The original purpose to provide off-campus classes was a novel idea at the time.
“Honey, now today everybody is doing it,” she said with a laugh.
As Sr. Camille reflected on her accomplishments, she became quiet.
“The opportunity was there,” she said. “You say yes. It is part of God’s plan? It must have been. Still is.”
Birthday celebration had to benefit university
Agreeing to the birthday celebration only if it would be of “value” to the university, Sr. Camille ultimately felt honored and blessed.
“It’s been a real blast, let me tell you,” she said.
A surprise video greeting came from former first lady Barbara Bush, Sr. Camille’s longtime friend. Their relationship began decades ago when Bush visited Cardinal Stritch’s renowned reading clinic. Later, Sr. Camille invited Bush to receive an honorary doctoral degree.
Recently the two women spent time together at Bush’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine. “It’s been a lovely relationship,” Sr. Camille said.
Bush demonstrated reciprocal fondness for her friend.
“Sr. Camille, I wish I could be with you as you celebrate this milestone,” Bush said in the birthday video. “You have been a real inspiration to me.”
Businessman grants bucket list wish
Joe Sweeney, a managing director at Corporate Financial Advisors, revealed similar admiration to the birthday crowd. Upon meeting Sr. Camille 26 years ago, he was drawn to her “calming grace and faith-filled personality,” he said. He had inquired about fees for using Stritch’s fieldhouse for his charity basketball camp. She responded, “‘Oh dear, why don’t you just use it? No rent is necessary,’” according to Sweeney. “My admiration and love for her has grown exponentially ever since,” he said.
One day Sweeney asked Sr. Camille what was on her “bucket list,” and she mentioned reconnecting with Bush. Along with Chris Doerr, co-owner of Sterling Aviation and good friend of Sr. Camille, Sweeney arranged the recent Maine trip where the trio spent a “magical day” together, Sweeney said.
“Sr. Camille is the most pleasant, positive and grace-filled person I have ever met, outside of my wife,” he said. “Every time I’m with her it makes me want to be a better person.”
Stritch president James Loftus shared similar affection for Sr. Camille. Her life “has been defined by bold leadership and visionary thinking, and framed by deep Franciscan kindness and incredible warmth … even a brief conversation with Sr. Camille resonates in one’s heart and soul long after the encounter is over,” he told the birthday audience.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan sent a letter of congratulations.
“Sister, you are truly a splendid and outstanding ‘first lady’ of Catholic education in Milwaukee,” Cardinal Dolan wrote.
Former students sent cards, many writing that while they “hated statistics,” she was the “best statistics teacher” they had ever had, according to Sr. Camille.
Tia Bojar, executive vice president of academic affairs at Stritch, has known Sr. Camille since Bojar was a student at the university. Bojar is grateful to Sr. Camille for teaching her “how to lead, how to serve and the importance of family,” Bojar said.
Dad wanted her to get steady job
Some might say Sr. Camille’s destiny at Stritch, founded by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, was determined when she was a child.
Raised in St. Francis, near the Franciscan motherhouse, and schooled by their nuns, “I never knew there was any other community of sisters,” she said. “Mama used to say, ‘Why don’t you come home?’ But we were helping Sister. We were talking to Sister.”
Sr. Camille’s father compelled her to use her talents. He also implored her to find a steady job.
“I think I’ve fulfilled that,” Sr. Camille said with a laugh.
After excelling at shorthand and typing in high school, Sr. Camille enrolled in business school and became a legal secretary.
However, becoming a Franciscan sister remained a possibility as she continued to spend time with the sisters.
“They would ask, ‘Do you think about becoming a sister?’” Sr. Camille said. “They felt God had a calling for me and I was finally convinced of it.”
Entering the novitiate in 1945 at age 22, she expected to be placed in an office but the mother superior said, “Indeed not, you are going to go to school, and we are going to prepare you for Cardinal Stritch,” according to Sr. Camille.
One of her greatest joys has been sharing her Franciscan life with her own sister, Sr. Joanne Marie Kliebhan, she said. Sr. Joanne Marie also played a pivotal role at Cardinal Stritch, co-founding the St. Francis Children’s Center in 1968. The two women lived together until Sr. Joanne Marie died eight years ago.
As Sr. Camille reflected on her accomplishments, she explained what inspired her to face challenges and remain driven.
“You’re just filled with the desire to do God’s will … and ask for God’s grace to fill another day,” she said. “It’s nothing mysterious. You’re aware of God’s plan for you and you pray to do the best you can.”
“The other part is, you know you have a good fit,” she said. “I love what I’m doing, love what I did.”