From the Ground Up: Schwalbach’s journey from professor to president plants the seed for new growth in her life

President Eileen Schwalbach’s smile framed her face as she ushered me and two other Arches staff members into her office for an early morning breakfast. She led us to four dark wooden chairs with leather seats positioned around an antique wooden table with a glass top. Sunlight draped the wood-paneled room, reflecting off the glass-doored bookshelves that were filled with trinkets given to past presidents. She said she had just rearranged them that morning.

We brought her a breakfast of buttery croissants, crumbly blueberry muffins, soft snickerdoodle cookies, flavored macarons and hot, steaming coffee, which she said she loves.

“Which one would you like?” we asked, presenting her with the plate of pastries.

“We should share them,” she answered, sipping her coffee.

As we ate the pastries, she told us about her immediate plans for after her presidency. She wants to bite into fresh juicy tomatoes from her garden, she said, and finally spend time tending her flowers. Of course, she wants to read good books.

Schwalbach will step down as president of Mount Mary University in June. She started her time at Mount Mary in 1993 as an adjunct instructor in English. From there she moved through various teaching and administrative positions until becoming the acting president in September 2008. In 2009, she officially became the 11th president of Mount Mary.  

Schwalbach said she would not be sitting behind the large wooden desk chosen by the first president if it were not for Pat O’Donoghue, the ninth president of Mount Mary. 

“She saw something in me that I never saw in myself,” Schwalbach said. “I never wanted to be an administrator. She called me into her office and said, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a dean?’ I said, ‘No, not really.’ She said, ‘You would be good at it. I’m going to make you a dean.’”

Schwalbach said one of her biggest risks was coming to Mount Mary to be a professor. She had been teaching in Milwaukee public schools for 25 years and had the option to retire but instead was eager to teach students about teaching. 

“I had always thought about teaching teachers,” Schwalbach said. “I had always worked with student teachers during 25 years (at MPS). Even my second year of teaching, I had a student teacher already. I really enjoyed helping bring new professionals into teaching.”

Sharon Schmidt, an adjunct instructor in English, described Schwalbach as one of the finest teachers she has known during her 40 years of teaching. 

“She’s creative, compassionate,  a scholar, and she’s genuine,” Schmidt said.  “Her easy manner makes it easy to approach and work with her. She’s always mindful of what is best for students. Her leadership has been of enormous benefit to the Mount Mary community.”

Schwalbach enjoys reading novels by American authors. As a high school English teacher, one of her favorite classes to teach was American authors. 

“I like good novels with rich description and interesting characters,” Schwalbach said. “There’s just something about a good book that really carries you away to another place and sometimes another time.”

Schwalbach loves the combination of literature and history. In college, she minored in history so she could talk about how literature reflects the time period.

She likes hiking and spending time in nature, especially in Door County’s state parks. Her fondness for being outdoors developed when her family would spend a week on the lake near Manitowish Waters with her aunt, uncle and cousin. During that week, they went on boat rides, took drives to the little towns nearby and played cards in the evening.

“I find it very calming just being away from the hub of the city life and just the peacefulness of being out in nature,” Schwalbach said. 

If Schwalbach could take any course after she finishes her presidency, she would take a painting class.

“I’ve always appreciated the talent that people who can create have … who can see something and try to reproduce either an emotion or an image on paper,” Schwalbach said. “It would be a real joy to be able to paint.”

Schwalbach does not have any concrete plans for after her presidency. Right now, she hopes to spend the summer relaxing. In the fall, she is considering tutoring high school students in English.

Schwalbach said she will miss interacting with students and alumnae.

“I’ll miss that the most, being around so many wonderful students who are so passionate about getting an education and who want to learn and make the world a better place,” Schwalbach said.

We had become so engrossed in our conversation that when we finally glanced at the time, an hour and a half  had passed by, a full 30 minutes longer than we had planned. As we stood up to leave, she hugged each of us and thanked us for spending the morning with her. Like the footsteps of the past presidents that once graced the pristine, white carpeted floor, Schwalbach will have a lasting impact on Mount Mary.

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