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Seton Hill's president led with determination — and a smile

| Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
JoAnne Boyle, 78, of Laughlintown died on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. She retired in June after more than 25 years at the helm of Seton Hill University.
JoAnne Boyle, 78, of Laughlintown died on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. She retired in June after more than 25 years at the helm of Seton Hill University.

Years before she became Seton Hill University's longest-serving president, the Sisters of Charity who taught JoAnne Woodyard Boyle saw the leader within her.

In fact, the sisters felt so strongly they noted on the 1957 Seton Hill graduate's transcript her “initiative and versatility in accomplishing and enlarging upon any undertaking.”

If only they could have fast-forwarded by decades to see how right they were about the woman who would transform the once-tiny liberal arts college into a respected center for education in the arts, business and health care.

Boyle, 78, of Laughlintown died on Friday. She retired in June after more than 25 years at the school's helm.

From the start, Boyle embarked on a no-holds-barred mission to extend Seton Hill's reach beyond the school's tree-lined campus on a hill overlooking Greensburg.

Known for her seemingly boundless energy, fierce determination and trademark smile, Boyle grew the school from an 800-student all-women's college to a 2,500-student co-educational university.

“She was a forward thinker, an agile thinker,” said Sharon P. Smith, president of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. “She led change in a difficult time. To take a school that had been all women and to turn it into what it has become certainly was not easy, but she never talked about the difficulties; she only was looking ahead.”

Boyle connected Seton Hill to the world, bringing foreign leaders and renowned artists, including Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet; Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa; poet Maya Angelou; and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough to campus.

In 2006, Seton Hill became a “sister school” with Beijing Union University, and in 2010, Seton Hill signed an agreement allowing students at China's Shandong University to finish their degrees at Seton Hill.

But her proudest connection was the one she made with students, who years later still speak about her impact on their lives.

“All those kind of things (she did) opened me up from a small-town perspective to a world view,” said Val Hoffer, 40, of Lower Burrell. “She taught me to look at the world, not just little Ligonier or Greensburg. She taught me, ‘Hey, there's so much out there.' ”

Across the board, former students said Boyle, who earned a master's degree from Harvard and a doctorate from Pitt before becoming an English professor at Seton Hill, made them feel that all things were possible.

Amy Skinner Lanham, president of the class of 1996, said Boyle personally helped her write a letter to Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, asking her to give a commencement address.

“(Boyle) was very hands on, very involved with what the students were doing and making sure we had what we needed,” said Lanham, 39, now a lawyer in Weston, W.Va.

Despite her work on large-scale initiatives, Boyle never lost sight of everyday life, of friends and family, in particular her husband and seven children.

In most cases, she was undaunted, even when stepping outside her comfort zone.

She often laughed when talking about beginning the school's football program, despite her limited knowledge of the game's inner workings.

She learned as she went with the help of a coaching staff she had assembled.

Chris Snyder, executive director of athletics, recalled the process of selecting the team's uniforms.

After several crimson and gold color samples failed to match her vision, Snyder said she came to him after watching football with her sons and said Boston College's gold helmets were perfect.

“I called my (sales) rep and I said, ‘Our president loves them, so give me 120,' ” Snyder said. “That's why we have gold helmets.”

Boyle was a loyal athletic supporter, braving snowstorms and driving rain to support Seton Hill's teams.

In 2008, Boyle drove to Massachusetts for a football playoff game.

“She walked out in the pouring rain and cold, dressed very presidential, through a mud-soaked field...(She was) just really a dynamic person who really cared about what Seton Hill represented and what athletes could do for the university,” Snyder said. Boyle also held a deep devotion to the community and was a fixture at civic events, an ardent supporter of the arts and a tireless mentor to women in business.

She began a nationally recognized business incubator for women at Seton Hill, brought the school down “off the hill” by building a strikingly stylish $21 million Performing Arts Center and soon-to-open Visual Arts Center in downtown Greensburg.

“She was at the forefront of leaders who recognized the value of a university to the economic stabilization and growth of downtowns,” said Seton Hill Interim President Bibiana Boerio.

But she was a brave educator, who was not afraid of failing, her colleagues remember.

As president, Boyle was “a visionary and a risk-taker; she opened many doors and helped others see possibilities that otherwise they might not realize were there,” said Sister Lois Sculco, vice president for institutional identity, mission and student life.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or

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