Former SMWC president honored during inaugural Wabash Valley Woman of Influence

April 26th, 2012 | SMWC

In the late 60s, bouncing on a train through Taiwan, the secretary general of the Sisters of Providence leaned in and said, “By the way, we’re naming you president of the College next year.”

That was how Jeanne Knoerle, SP, Ph.D.,’49, learned she was to become the 12th president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, a task that began decades of service to the Wabash Valley. From establishing SMWC’s distance education program to creating Our Green Valley Alliance for Sustainability, she has enriched her community and beyond. In recognition of her leadership, Knoerle received one of the inaugural 2012 Women of Influence awards, which honored eight prominent Wabash Valley women for their leadership, vision and courage.

“I am very grateful,” Knoerle said. “Women in Terre Haute have made great contributions and I’m happy that this group is raising their visibility.”

The fundraiser breakfast, which raised proceeds for Success by 6, a United Way program that strengthens reading skills, was held on Thursday, April 19, 2012. The Sisters of Providence nominated Knoerle in honor of her contributions to their congregation and the community.

“Sister Jeanne is quick to recognize a need and so capable in gathering the right people to address that need,” said Denise Wilkinson ’68, general superior of the Sisters of Providence. “Nominating her was definitely a ‘no-brainer’ for us.”

Knoerle earned her bachelor’s in theatre at SMWC shortly before entering the Sisters of Providence. She then earned her master's in journalism, an MBA and a doctorate in comparative literature, with an emphasis in Chinese and Japanese literature, all from Indiana University. She taught at a university in Taiwan until 1968, when she returned to her alma mater as president and pioneered an innovative approach to education.

“The 1960s and 1970s were a transition time for higher education,” she explained. “I wanted to find a way to offer the best of The Woods to women who couldn’t get to the campus.”

Thus, in 1973, the nation’s second distance bachelor’s degree program was born. Originally named Women’s External Degree, the WED program became known as the Woods External Degree program in the 1990s when it began admitting men. Nearly 40 years later, that program, now known as Woods Online, has helped more than 2500 men and women aspire higher.   

“Sister Jeanne took a leap of faith when she established our distance program, which has thrived over the decades,” said Dottie L. King, Ph.D., president of SMWC. “As a former president of SMWC, she provides me with valuable insight and feedback. Her faith in Providence reminds me that the work we do is in the name of a higher power.”

After she retired from the College in 1983, Knoerle continued to mentor the community as the program director in the religion division at the Lilly Endowment and then the founder of Our Green Valley for Sustainability.

"It was amazing to watch Sister Jeanne assemble the leaders of the area's biggest institutions to advance sustainability,” said Lorrie Heber, president of Our Green Valley Alliance for Sustainability and a 2008 graduate of SMWC’s Master of Leadership Development program. “She led them in crafting a mission and a commitment to the cause."

Our Green Valley began as a kitchen table organization, Heber said. Knoerle invited a group of prominent Wabash Valley businesses and leaders to come together and discuss ways they can, and do, promote environmental sustainability in the community.

“People were ready,” Knoerle said. “All they wanted was someone to say ‘Let’s do it.’” The organization held its first major event, Green Town Terre Haute, on Nov. 17, 2011, at Indiana State University. More than 300 attendees united to inspire and be inspired by innovative ways to make a more positive environmental impact right here in Terre Haute.

“Her ingenuity, leadership and ability to elicit change inspires and influences the entire community,” King said.

Knoerle has been a progressive force in the Wabash Valley since she first stepped onto SMWC’s campus in 1945. Since then, she has inspired future generations of leaders to take risks with courage and confidence. “If women do not take risks, there will be no improvement for anyone” Knoerle said. “If you want to grow in life, you have to learn to take risks.”

Comment on this article

This story has been moved to the archive and comments have now been disabled.