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Frances M. Quinlivan: Curious, Devoted, Indomitable

Note: This is the second 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.


Still her voice dangling late afternoon lines of

Shakespeare even the tired oaks lightened

at words fine as gold filigree against her

autumn tweeds, cashmere easy on her shoulders.


At nineteen we disputed all

truth. Squint, she said, and held out

counterfeits. On our mid-west green

we walked with Marx and Aquinas

that Gothic campus chilled

reading tragedies until our faces grew

into Greek masks, dead heroines traced

on frosted windows.


And the French writer: a last nickel

for hyacinths, not bread. Together we tracked

origins: a seed, a page soon whole folios of

shimmering flesh characters waiting to be

named under bark (think of Antigone

once in a tree or Caliban or that Russian

woman on the tracks).

We left her passionate to rescue words.


Now older than she was then

(Paganini on broken nights, young odors clinging)

My home shifts through boulders switch-

backs avalanche country the Great

Divide. In a chaos far from

that early campus Quinnie’s green word:

know the genuine.


In the poem “Quinnie,” alumna Rita Brady Kiefer ’53 celebrates the memory of the late Dr. Frances M. Quinlivan and the profound influence she had in shaping her students’ minds at Notre Dame College. The imagery of the poem paints a picture of students learning and being challenged against the backdrop of “that Gothic campus.” She ends the poem with an almost wistful remembrance of a simple truth passed on by Dr. Quinlivan: “Know the genuine.”

As Notre Dame College continues on its mission of educating students for personal, professional and global responsibility, it is fitting that upon the “mid-west green,” where for nearly 90 years students have “walked with Marx and Aquinas,” a memorial circle stands in remembrance of Dr. Quinlivan.

For anyone who knew the long-time English teacher, Dr. Quinlivan exemplified presence. Under her reserved exterior, she was insatiably curious, relentlessly logical, devoted to her causes, and indomitable. Students admired her and applaud her name to this day.

Frances was born July 20, 1902. At 17 months old, she contracted polio. She recovered but was paralyzed from the waist down. At first, her parents expected the family would care for her all her life. But when her brother died in childhood, they focused on preparing Frances to take care of herself. They shaped her attitude and provided the education they knew she would need.

After attending elementary and high school classes at Notre Dame Academy, she enrolled at Western Reserve University. During her junior year she acquired an electric car. From then until her 80s, Frances drove cars specially equipped with hand controls.

In 1925, Frances received her bachelor’s degree from WRU and applied to teach at Notre Dame College, only three years after it opened. She was offered a part-time post, which allowed her to earn a master’s degree from WRU in 1928.

Dr. Quinlivan in 1982.
Dr. Quinlivan in 1982

Professor Quinlivan quickly established a reputation as a demanding teacher. Her deceptively simple questions unsettled and challenged students. They could not simply take copious notes and regurgitate facts. “Quinnie” expected them to develop into independent thinkers who could spot shallow reasoning and defend their own beliefs. In time, many of Quinnie’s former students joined her on the Notre Dame College faculty.

As Quinnie took on more classes during the school years, she also took advantage of summer vacations to travel with her childhood friend, Dorothy Burke. Dorothy was a teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools and later assistant principal at John Adams High School. Their most memorable trip was a 13-week European odyssey in 1930. The women sailed to Dublin, taking along Quinnie’s specially equipped Buick. They drove around Ireland, Scotland and England, crossed the Channel, and continued across Europe. In August, they sailed from Naples, hurried from New York, and arrived home just in time for the opening day of classes.

In 1946, Quinnie became advisor of the Pall Mall Honorary English Society. Membership was limited to students who received an “A” in one of her courses. Monthly meetings usually featured speakers she lined up. The December meeting, however, was always a Christmas party at the Cleveland Heights home Quinnie and Dorothy shared.

Quinnie completed her Ph.D. in English literature at Western Reserve University in 1947. Her dissertation examined the Anglo-Irish novel from 1800 to 1880.

In 1948, Dr. Quinlivan was named head of Notre Dame College’s English Department. Despite the added administrative load, she continued to make time for individual writing conferences with students in her classes and on the staff of the College’s literary anthology, “Pivot.”

Dr. Quinlivan retired from Notre Dame in 1970 but remained active. For 10 years she and Dorothy continued their travels, attended plays and concerts, and cooked for dinner guests. Dr. Quinlivan read voraciously and corresponded with Notre Dame alumnae worldwide.

She received several awards following her retirement. In 1970, the Outstanding Educators of America recognized Dr. Quinlivan for her contribution to education and her service to the community. That same year, the College established the Quinlivan Award of Excellence for outstanding English majors. In 1971, Kappa Gamma Pi, the national Catholic college graduate honor society, awarded Dr. Quinlivan its biennial Faith and Service Award. In 1996, Notre Dame presented her with the Fidelia Award and Dr. Quinlivan received honorary alumna status from the College’s alumnae association.

After her friend Dorothy died in 1983, Dr. Quinlivan lived alone in her house until 1994. Then she reluctantly moved to Judson Park Retirement Community. She mentioned to a visitor that her oldest known relative had died at 96. Never one to be outdone, Quinnie refused to die until eight days after her 96th birthday.

In 2005, Notre Dame College dedicated the Quinlivan Circle in front of the Administration Building in her memory, highlighting her influence on her students and the College she served for 45 years. As today’s students walk across the circle bearing her name, may they remember Quinnie’s most important lesson: “Know the genuine.”

The majority of this article comes from a story written by Patricia Opaskar ’65 in 2005.