Sister Sally Furay, described by many as one of the key architects of the St. Thomas School of Law and an administrator of “remarkable talent and energy,” died Saturday in San Diego.
Furay, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart, was a founding member of the law school’s Board of Governors in 2001 and attended its most-recent meeting in November. She also was a member of the St. Thomas Board of Trustees, from 1989 to 1999. She was 88.
The Omaha native spent 44 years at the University of San Diego and one of its predecessor institutions, the San Diego College for Women. She served as a professor, department chair and dean from 1952 until 1971, when she became provost and academic vice president. The college merged the following year with the San Diego College of Men and School of Law into what became the University of San Diego, and she remained as provost until her retirement in 1996.
St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan praised the “tremendous impact” of Furay’s leadership on three institutions where they worked together: St. Thomas; the University of San Diego, where Sullivan was provost from 2005 to 2013; and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
“Sally had a rare combination of keen intellect, wit, common sense, and compassion,” Sullivan said. “She knew the essence of excellence. Her questions and recommendations that always cut to the heart of the matter, and her willingness to roll up her sleeves and get things done, will continue to benefit all three organizations for decades to come.”
St. Thomas conferred a Doctor of Laws degree on Furay in 1999, commending her for working “tirelessly and enthusiastically on behalf of Catholic higher education across the United States.” She touched institutions and individuals “with creativity, thoughtfulness, common sense and zeal, helping them better prepare themselves as leaders in society,” stated the citation that accompanied the honorary degree.
Furay was born in Omaha, and chose to enter the Society of the Sacred Heart at the age of 18. She spent her novice years in Albany, New York, and earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Duschene College in Omaha. After receiving a master’s degree from the San Francisco College for Women, she took her final vows in 1952 and joined the faculty of the San Diego College for Women, which her order ran. She also had a doctorate in English literature from Stanford and a law degree from San Diego.
Given Furay’s experience with coeducation issues in San Diego, Monsignor Terrence Murphy, president of St. Thomas from 1966 to 1991, asked her to serve on a committee to study coeducation here. “Our recommendation was to continue to look at closer cooperation with St. Catherine,” she later recalled. “If that did not work, and if St. Catherine wanted to remain separate, then St. Thomas should go co-ed” (and it did in 1977).
As a St. Thomas trustee and one-time chair of the Board of Trustees’ Academic Affairs Committee, Furay served on the feasibility committee that examined whether the university should open a law school. Father Dennis Dease, president from 1991 to 2013, recalled one critical moment in 1998.
“During one of our first meetings on the subject, she outlined on a single sheet of paper the startup costs and initial operating budget,” he said. “Those numbers demonstrated for us that we could do it. They were crucial to our decision. And, as it turned out, they came remarkably close to the actual figures.”
Dease called Furay “one of the most positive, gracious and optimistic persons I’ve ever known” and said she was highly respected by her board peers. “When Sally spoke,” he said, “trustees listened.”
Dean Rob Vischer said Furay was the law school’s “longtime source of wisdom and encouragement” who “discerned and articulated what a meaningfully Catholic law school could and should be.” He noted that when she attended the law school board meeting in November, “she once again reminded everyone that a great law school is built over decades, not years.”
A woman of remarkable talent and energy
Patrick Schiltz arrived at St. Thomas in July 2000 as associate dean of the law school and was taken aback by the considerable work necessary for the school to open in August 2001. “I was told not to despair,” he recalled, because Furay would fly in occasionally from San Diego to assist him.
“I was not much comforted by the thought that I would have the part-time help of an elderly nun,” said Schiltz, now a U.S. District Court judge. “But then I got to know the force of nature that was Sr. Sally. The law school certainly would not have opened on time – and may not have opened at all – if it had not been for Sister Sally, who was a woman of remarkable talent and energy.”
Schiltz said he could write pages about her contributions to the law school, and he singled out three:
“First, Sister Sally handled the mountains of paperwork that accompanies the opening of a law school. For example, the accrediting agencies – both those that accredited the university and those that would accredit the law school – required reams of forms to be filled out and reports to be filed. Before those documents could be completed, a great deal of data had to be collected (or projected) and translated into the unique language spoken by academic accreditors. Sister Sally handled all of this.
“Second, because almost no one in a position of power at the university had any first-hand experience with a law school, they were wary about much of what we told them, and they often resisted requests that we made – such as requests that the law school be exempted from the university’s standard policies. But the university’s trustees and officers completely trusted Sister Sally. When she told them that we needed something, we got it.
“Finally, Sr. Sally was instrumental in developing the mission that animates the law school and sets it apart from other law schools.”
Schiltz called the St. Thomas law school “very much a reflection” of Furay. “It is a place where a diverse group of people who disagree about a lot of things are united in the desire to be trained in the law so that they can better serve God and each other,” he said. “Every student who will ever study at St. Thomas – and every faculty and staff member who will ever work at St. Thomas – will owe an immense debt to Sister Sally.”
Always insisted on the personal touch
Furay knew from first-hand experience that administrators become overly enmeshed in day-to-day details of running a university, and she always emphasized the need to maintain a personal touch.
“It all goes back to mission,” she told St. Thomas magazine in a 1997 profile. “The person is most important, and must be treated as an individual. If you lose that, you lose a lot, because students can get their education and their degrees a lot cheaper elsewhere.”
She said she often saw that personal touch on the San Diego campus and was gratified by answers to a question that she always asked prospective faculty: “Why do you want to teach here?” “The answer,” she said, “invariably was that they wanted to have a positive influence on other human beings – and what a great place to do it!”
Sullivan said it is the personal touch that she will long remember about Furay.
“Sally was a friend and a mentor to me,” she said. “In fact, she was a key confidant during my discernment about the opportunity to lead St. Thomas. During the last year and a half, I looked forward to her visits to St. Thomas and always found joy and inspiration in the twinkle in her eye, her warm smile and her laughter. She meant a lot to so many of us, and we will miss her.”
A funeral Mass will be at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Jan. 16, at the Immaculata church on the San Diego campus. Visitation will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 15, at the Founders Chapel on the campus.