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In the Business of Making a Difference

Note: This is the 32nd 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

For Sr. Helen Burdenski ’62, a sharp business sense and social justice don’t have to be a contradiction. You can be successful in business, she says, and still do a lot of good. That’s what her parents taught her growing up, and that’s what she taught her students at Notre Dame College for 38 years.

During her almost four decades as professor of business administration, Sr. Helen taught her students the importance of being interested in the bigger world and using their business skills to make it a better one.      

“I was trying to teach them that they should give their time and their skills and their money to bigger causes, and not just spend it on themselves solely,” Sr. Helen says. “I always made a big point to use these skills in helping others. If you are fortunate to make a lot of money – if you are that blessed – use it to make the world a better place.”

In her business ethics class, Sr. Helen stressed how money and power can be misused; in other classes, her students worked with local businesses to revitalize Cleveland’s neighborhoods.

But what impressed Sr. Helen most was when her students took initiative to come up with their own ideas to make a difference. A group of former students, for example, recently formed a kickball team to raise money for children’s cancer research. They called themselves “Sr. Helen’s Kickers” and invited her to watch the competition.

Sr. Helen's Kickers
Sr. Helen with "Sr. Helen's Kickers"

“When they got all that organized, I was just so pleased that something I was trying to teach them took,” Sr. Helen says.

Sr. Helen’s message of using business acumen to make a difference simply resonated with her students, many of whom stay in touch with her long after they graduate. Sr. Helen says she has been invited to dozens of weddings and can hardly keep up with all the friend requests on Facebook and LinkedIn.

“I kind of miss teaching,” she says. “It’s so much fun to interact with young people and to see how you impact their lives. To see how they grow is beautiful.”   

But Sr. Helen says she doesn’t have much time to mope about no longer being in the classroom. She is too busy volunteering five days a week for Hospice of the Western Reserve. She visits patients and their families, holds vigils with the actively dying, or simply talks or prays with them.

“The mission is to enable each patient to live each day that they have to the fullest,” Sr. Helen says. “It’s an honor to be with them as they are walking the last miles of their journey and to share that moment with their families.”

Sr. Helen says her volunteer work with Hospice makes her wonder what her own legacy will be. To get a sense of what impact she has had on her students, just read through the reflections former students and colleagues sent in when Sr. Helen retired in 2011.

“Your helpful leadership and interesting anecdotes have stayed with me over the years.  I am a better person for having known you,” one former student wrote.

“Professors like Sr. Helen are not as common as one would hope,” another wrote. “She held us all to high standards and, at the same time, set the expectation that we could easily meet those standards.”

A fellow Sister wrote that Sr. Helen left her mark on the College and in the hearts of her students. “She wanted them to learn and to be successful,” she wrote, “not only to earn big paychecks but more importantly to bring a certain presence of integrity to their workplaces where they could impact others for good.” 

Sr. Helen
Sr. Helen took care of the flowers on campus for many years.

Sr. Helen credits her “wonderful parents” for introducing those values to her. She says her father, Al, sharpened her business sense and was responsible for her meeting the Sisters of Notre Dame, while her mother, Nora, instilled a passion for service.

“My dad’s the one who insisted that I go to St. Stephen’s High School, where the Sisters taught, because they had a great business education program,” Sr. Helen says. “Being personnel manager at the Erie Railroad, he was interviewing all the high school grads. He said by far the best preparation was at St. Stephen’s.”

To provide for his daughter and four boys, Sr. Helen’s dad worked a second job as financial secretary for the Knights of Columbus, and he employed the entire family to help with whatever tasks he could delegate. “So early on we were part of his office operation,” Sr. Helen says.  

Sr. Helen’s mother was a stay-at-home mom who was interested in non-profit groups. She was active in local politics and her parish, and volunteered for the Isabella Guild and at a home for unwed mothers.

“She had the Irish sensitivity to people and was just a very loving, kind person,” Sr. Helen says. “She just loved having a good time, and I see that in myself. She would always say, ‘We’re so blessed. We should just enjoy life.’”

After her mother died – six weeks before her 50th wedding anniversary – Sr. Helen found a handwritten quote attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in her mom’s dresser that exemplified the kind of person she was. The quote read: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

“I was so taken by it,” Sr. Helen says. “When I saw that I thought, ‘That’s her life and that’s what I aspire to do – to be of God’s love to other people.’”

Sr. Helen has done so as a teacher for 38 years and as a Sister of Notre Dame for 52. Her path of service began on the West side of Cleveland, where she grew up playing sports with her four brothers at Jefferson Park.

After graduating from St. Stephen’s, Sr. Helen decided to join the Sisters of Notre Dame because she was “attracted to their joy, their happiness, their interest in all the students, and their good teaching.”

“I’ve always loved teaching,” Sr. Helen says. “I remember back when I was 6 or 7 years old I would play school and make my younger brother and my girlfriend the class. I was always the teacher.”

After graduating from Notre Dame College with a degree in business education in 1962 and student teaching at Regina High School, Sr. Helen started teaching at St. Francis High School. In 1963 she helped move Notre Dame Academy from Cleveland to Chardon and taught there for six years. She then taught at Cleveland Central Catholic for four years before being assigned to Notre Dame College, where she stayed for 38 years until her retirement.

During summer courses, Sr. Helen earned a master’s in business education from The Catholic University of America in D.C., a master’s in theology from St. Thomas University in Rome, and a Doctorate of Business Administration from Kent State University.  

During her time at Notre Dame, Sr. Helen twice chaired the Department of Business Administration. From 1990 to 1993, she took a break from teaching to become vice president of institutional advancement.

“I quickly realized this wasn’t my niche,” Sr. Helen says. “I missed the interaction with the students.”

So she returned to the classroom to prepare her students for the business world and inspire them to make a difference.

Sr. Helen’s excellent teaching skills were recognized in 1997, when she received the Distinguished Faculty Award. In 2005, she was also honored with the Alumna of the Year Award for her countless volunteer efforts, which included gardening on campus for many years. She also received the Professor Emeritus Award upon her retirement in 2011.

Sr. Helen says she wanted to retire “when students are saying, ‘Oh, please don’t retire!’” She did just that and set the bar very high for anyone following in her footsteps.

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