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Believing in Notre Dame

Note: This is the 10th profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

By Christian Taske ’07

As soon as Helen Foose Petersen ’38 stepped onto Notre Dame College’s campus in 1934, she began to make a difference. In her first year at College Road, she was elected chairman of the freshman class, only the fourth in Notre Dame’s history. In her junior year, she became secretary of the Student Spiritual Council as well as treasurer for her class and the Economic Seminar. “A veritable ‘treasurer chest’ is Helen Foose,” the student newspaper, Notre Dame News, wrote in 1937. “The students evidently believe in Helen and their trust is not misplaced.”

While her classmates believed in Helen Foose the Notre Dame student, Helen Petersen the Notre Dame graduate believed in the College as well. She believed in her alma mater so much in fact that she decided to bequest $1.19 million to Notre Dame in 2001. In a sense, Petersen had gone from “treasurer chest” to “treasure chest.”  

Petersen was a smart and sophisticated student who majored in economics at Notre Dame College. “Helen has a particular flair for mannish, tailored clothes, but she is by no means overly clothes-conscious. She is one senior who has a distinct penchant for debating deep, philosophical questions,” the Notre Dame Newsdescribed her in 1938.

“But I can’t spend my entire life steeped in philosophy,” Petersen told the Notre Dame News. “I’ve got to find myself a place in the business world. At present the place is somewhat vague, but the important thing is to ‘get rich quick’ and spent the rest of my life travelling.”

After graduating from NDC in 1938, Petersen, who received a master’s in business from Kent State University, accomplished both – getting rich and travelling the world – as she embarked on a successful career as an officer in the Foreign Service of the U.S. State Department.

The State Department initially assigned her to Bermuda. A year later, she was transferred to the American Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal. In a 1948 Notre Dame News article, Petersen described life in Lisbon:

“Promenades are very wide and made of tiny pieces of white and black stones laid in mosaic patterns. Buildings are pastel or white and all stone or tile. Specialized Tea Houses in Lisbon cater to businessmen of the same trade. While women of the better class are more modish in dress than Americans, the peasants rebel against a law passed requiring the wearing of shoes and carry them in case a policeman is sighted.”

The Notre Dame News described Petersen’s social calendar like this: “dancing with officer friend at casino; attending bullfight; pleasant weekend with friends in lovely mountainous spot made famous by long-ago residence of Lord Byron; parties attended by European ‘big-wigs’; Rome for New Year’s Eve dining with a count and countess; a trip around the Mediterranean taking in Madrid, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli; and dining with a sheik in Cairo.”

Petersen once flew over the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, “a jewel in the early morning sunlight,” as she wrote, and traveled to Paris, the “most beautiful and fascinating city ever visited” with a “universal appeal for every taste and type.” There she “attended Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, viewed first showing of advanced styles at a swank house of fashion, and followed Marie Antoinette’s trail at Versailles.”

After her assignment in Portugal, Petersen also served in Vietnam, France, Iran, Korea and Singapore before retiring in 1971. After her illustrious career in the Foreign Service, she retired in Coronado, Calif., where she enjoyed driving up and down the canal, watching the boats and the tide.

In May 2000, Petersen announced that she had established a trust fund of $410,000 to support the College. It was not until she died on July 31, 2001, and her will was read, that the College found out Petersen had also left it part of her estate, totaling $1.19 million. It was the largest gift the College ever received.

When Petersen had made the initial pledge for her donation, she said that she made it in recognition of how well Notre Dame College had prepared her for her career in the Foreign Service.

“Notre Dame College prepared me to successfully deal with the challenges I faced in my personal life and career,” Petersen said. “I am pleased to establish a fund that will […] help future generations of Notre Dame students.”

Petersen made the initial gift of $410,000 contingent that Notre Dame remained an all-women’s college. When the trustees decided to open the College for male students, Notre Dame President Anne Deming was worried Petersen would reconsider her donation.

Deming scheduled a meeting with Petersen in San Diego to persuade her to continue her support. She arranged that the official announcement of Notre Dame becoming a co-educational school arrive in Petersen’s mailbox two days before the two were scheduled to have lunch.

When Deming met Petersen, the alumna had her financial adviser with her. “I thought for sure that would be a bad sign but it wasn’t,” Deming told the Sun Messenger.

Petersen told Deming that she had had a morning water aerobics class and had talked with her friends about the issue of Notre Dame going co-ed.

“She said, ‘Tell me why this makes sense,’” Deming told The Plain Dealer. “When I explained that the market for single-sex institutions was shrinking and that we could not live off the one percent of the population interested, she agreed.”

By the end of the lunch Petersen asked her financial adviser to remove the clause that required Notre Dame to remain an all-women’s college.

Petersen’s gift was an unrestricted bequest and used as part of a $5.2 million expansion campaign that included an addition to the Keller Center, improvements to technology on campus and increased scholarship opportunities. With the help of her bequest, the campaign met its goal only one year after its introduction.

“She was a very high-energy, active woman who loved Notre Dame,” Deming told The Plain Dealer. “It was a wonderful thing that she did for us.”  

In recognition of Petersen’s contributions to the College, the board of trustees in 2003 voted to change the name of Alumnae Hall to Petersen Hall. The residence hall was officially renamed in a ceremony during homecoming weekend.

Petersen Hall is traditionally occupied by freshmen students. As they live in the building that bears Helen Foose Petersen’s name, maybe they will be inspired to follow her example and make a difference on campus and beyond.

Christian Taske ’07 is the director of print & digital communications at Notre Dame College.