At Home with President Conboy...Our Mom

In the age of COVID-19, the open door policy that would ordinarily be President Conboy’s signature welcome to the Saint Mary’s College community may need to be more virtual than literal. But the spirit will prevail: in the Conboy-O’Grady household, an open door has been our way of life—literally—for as long as we can remember.

Have a college friend without a place to go over a long weekend? Bring them to stay with us. A promising new love interest? You’d better invite him to Thanksgiving. Four international students from India who can’t get home over winter break? We’re picking them up and driving them back to 9 Oak Road for Christmas dinner—and gifts! When one of her previous institutions welcomed a group of 20 young women from across Africa during her first month as provost, she insisted on hosting some of the students under our roof—and on making them the Panang curry she mastered during a cooking class in northern Thailand. The more cultures represented and the more paths crossing in our home, the better.

In Paris, from left to right Katie, Caitriona, Mairead, and SiobhanFor our well-traveled mother—an Army brat who knows what it’s like to want to feel at home—this is simply how a life should be lived. There is no space too small to crowd in another person; no table too fancy for an extra, unmatched chair. She and our dad preside over Thanksgiving dinner at the head of the table, sharing a small piano bench so that everyone else has a seat to lean back in after feasting on her Michelin Star-worthy smorgasbord. We’ll drag that bench back into the living room after dinner for a singalong in which she is equally as likely to solo as to harmonize.

And that seems like a good metaphor for what we’ve seen of her first few months in the top leadership role at Saint Mary’s College. Arriving on campus in the midst of a pandemic ravaging the country and a national reckoning over racism, she stepped up and stepped in for the biggest solo of her life. But she has also sought countless opportunities to harmonize, to learn from her new colleagues and the students and alumnae she serves, and to give other voices the chance to take the lead. She has affirmed wholeheartedly that Black Lives Matter, with the conviction that this is the time for bold, principled leadership, not vacillation among conflicting views of
the world.

Our mom has always sought to understand the lived experiences of others. For us, there is no clearer example of this than her decision to visit each of us during the transformative college semesters that we spent abroad. Her first trip brought her to Senegal to visit her eldest daughter. In Dakar, Mairéad’s host family referred to our mom as “Mommy Katie,” but also lovingly bestowed upon her the same Senegalese name as their matriarch, Coumba. Two years later, she booked a family trip to Morocco for Thanksgiving during Caitríona’s first semester there, where she surprised and delighted her daughter’s hosts and classmates with American-style pumpkin pies. (Mairéad couldn’t join because she was on a teaching fellowship in Thailand, but our mom took a multi-day flight across the world to see her six months later.) And, of course, she couldn’t skip visiting her youngest daughter in Cameroon after seeing the older two in their new contexts. In Yaoundé, she cooked her famous spaghetti and meatballs for a dozen members of Siobhán’s host family, with a dash of local hot pepe as an extra touch. For each of us, her presence in the moment, learning about a new culture alongside us, felt like a gift we shared. But what we realized soon after returning to the US was that having someone back home who could understand our stories firsthand, who could picture the people and the places we’d come to love, who could listen when we missed our far-off friends the most—that was a gift that kept on giving.

President Katie Conboy on campusWe know that this is precisely the spirit our mom brings to Saint Mary’s: she is committed, first and foremost, to learning a place and its people. Most people need to get to know a place before it can feel like home; she makes a place her home as a way to get to know it. We’ve seen her do this in the cities and the countries that mean so much to us, and in places like Paris and Dublin and our father’s native Prince Edward Island, where she is the one who organizes and facilitates large family gatherings on our annual pilgrimages there. She has never met a kitchen, or a community, she couldn’t make her own.

Since her South Bend condo wasn’t ready by the time her job was starting on June 1, our mom drove 14 hours across the country, alone, and moved directly onto the Saint Mary’s campus. In a way, she was coming home: wedding her previous professional stops at a Holy Cross institution and a women’s college, Saint Mary’s sits just across the road from Notre Dame, where she and our dad earned their PhDs and where they were married in the Basilica 35 years ago. Living on campus allowed her to demonstrate her commitment to the school and to provide stability and trust during one of the most uncertain eras in recent memory. Soon, she and our dad (and their two cats) will be fully settled into their condo, and we look forward to the day when they can host us—and so many of you in the Saint Mary’s community—safely. But in the meantime, Riedinger House, where our mom lived during her first couple of months on the job, will be her office this year. How perfectly apt that in her first year as President, her office—doors open wide—will be a home.

Mairéad O’Grady is Associate Head of School at The School for Ethics and Global Leadership and Director of their Program in Johannesburg, South Africa. Caitríona O’Grady is a Social Worker in Boston, MA. Siobhán O’Grady is a reporter on the Foreign Desk at the Washington Post.

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