Celebrating 100 Years: the Legacy of Mary Bruemmer


Photo Courtesy of Rebecca LiVigni

On Feb. 26, SLU students, faculty and staff gathered in the Saint Louis room to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of SLUs most extraordinary alumna, Mary Bruemmer. Bruemmer’s centenary celebration was well anticipated, with an exhibit documenting her life and legacy in Pius Library and a feature piece in SLU’s own “Legends and Lore” series. 


Bruemmer’s legacy at SLU is difficult to overstate. She has been an inspiration to the SLU community for generations and has demonstrated the fruits that accompany a life dedicated to service to others. In an interview with the university, Bruemmer said of her abiding love for SLU and its mission: “there is a body of research that’s been done all over the world with all different cultures that finds that the happiest people and those who live the longest fall in love with something and dedicate their lives, their time, their money to this one thing.” For Bruemmer, this “one thing” has been Saint Louis University, and she has certainly left her mark. 


To number Bruemmer among SLU’s most distinguished alumni is already to do her a disservice, for her connection and impact on SLU goes far beyond her undergraduate career. Born in 1920 in Madison, Illinois, Bruemmer enrolled at SLU in 1938. Her enrollment came at a moment in SLU’s history when women did not have access to the same educational opportunities as their male peers did. 


The year Bruemmer began her collegiate career, just five percent of SLU’s student population was female, and women were not allowed to enroll in the College of Arts and Sciences. Entering instead the School of Education and Social Services, Bruemmer earned an A.B. in education, history and English.

Despite obstacles, Bruemmer put together an illustrious undergraduate career, becoming the first female editor-in-chief of The University News and earning straight A’s. Commenting on her ability to succeed in the face of daunting obstacles, Bruemmer said: “I discovered that, in competing for acceptance, grades or honors, the secret was to act as if prejudice and discrimination did not exist, to presume that I would exceed and excel.” 


This mindset would continue to serve Bruemmer and her endeavors after SLU. Graduating in 1942 in the midst of World War II, Bruemmer took a job with the Red Cross offering vocational counseling to veterans. 


In 1956, Bruemmer returned to SLU as the director of Marguerite Hall, an all-female residence hall at the time. In 1960, Bruemmer earned a masters degree in education and would go on to serve as Dean of Women and later as Dean of Students. 

Throughout her career, Bruemmer was at the forefront of initiatives aimed at the empowerment of women, and her efforts directly or indirectly led to many of the things that SLU students today take for granted. As Dean of Students, she led efforts to open Oriflamme to women, a reform long overdue that strengthened the SLU community and its welcome initiatives. She founded the Women’s Commission a year later, an organization which “serves to promote the interests, issues and concerns of the women at the university” and to “educate, enrich and empower the women of Saint Louis University.” 


Bruemmer officially retired in 1990, but her impact and legacy continued to grow. She was awarded the university’s Fleur-de-Lis Medal upon her retirement, an honor bestowed on those individuals “whose contributions to the university reach far beyond the normal call of duty.” She received an honorary doctorate from SLU in 2000, and in 2016 was honored with a papal knighthood, becoming Dame Commander of the Order of Saint Sylvester, Pope and Martyr.


As the SLU community gathered to celebrate Bruemmer’s 100th birthday, this litany of accomplishments was honored alongside personal anecdotes and memories of Bruemmer shared by alumni and faculty. Above all, the celebration reminded the SLU community that, as President Fred Pestello put it, “SLU will never be lacking for her presence.”