Six months ago, I was devastated to find out that the most formidable woman I have ever met had unexpectedly passed away.
I’ve been thinking for a while about how to approach writing this post and I’m still not sure that I can do it justice, but it feels appropriate to try.
Six months ago, I, no, the world, lost Cathy.
I’m not even sure how to put into words what Cathy was to me. Our relationship was complicated. And tense at times.
She didn’t accept incompetence, and she never once let me off the hook. Cathy didn’t take crap from anyone, ever. Nothing made her angrier that a student walking into her office and spinning some bullsh*t tale about why they just couldn’t be an engineer. Cathy respected hard work. Plain and simple, in her eyes, it seemed nothing worth doing was simple.
She told me to get it together more than once. Cathy believed in you, even when you didn’t believe in yourself. She didn’t stroke your ego and hold your hand, she didn’t coax you to success, she demanded it. This didn’t sit well with everyone. Even I, on several occasions, resented her blunt approach. She reduced more than one student, including me, to tears in her office. But don’t mistake me, Cathy was not mean. She saw straight to the heart of the issue, managed to pinpoint the ways in which you failed yourself, and made it clear that this, was simply unacceptable. Her words could sting, but only because they put out in the open what in your heart of hearts you knew to be true.
She expected hard work, and often more of it that I thought I was capable of. Cathy did not give compliments lightly. To earn her praise or approval, you had to work HARD. Go above and beyond and truly dedicate yourself to something. But this made her praise so much more meaningful. To get a compliment from Cathy meant that you had truly done something exceptional. She didn’t ever praise mediocrity.
She expected me to be knowledgeable, articulate and prepared. Cathy was a busy woman. She didn’t appreciate having her time wasted. If you were lucky enough to have her attention she expected you to have something worthwhile to say. It made the rare moments when she would have a casual conversation with you or crack a joke like little gems of approval.
She was well connected and well informed. Cathy had all the answers. I can’t count the number of times I responded to someone with the words, “I don’t know, ask Cathy”. She was decisive and intelligent, articulate and persuasive. She knew what was up, she knew how to get things accomplished, she expected excellence from herself and all those around her.
Its likely that I wouldn’t still be an engineer without Cathy’s influence. Cathy was a champion of women. In every sense. She revolutionized the structure of the Notre Dame Engineering program to make it a more hospitable environment for women. The changes she implemented have resulted in Notre Dame having one of the highest percentages of female engineers nationally.
Cathy and I had a complicated relationship. There were times I truly thought that after graduation I would never speak with her again. But losing her made me acutely aware of how wrong I was. She pushed me beyond anything I could have ever dreamed. And sometimes I hated her for it. Sometimes I thought she was unreasonable. But most of the time, I was honored, SO honored, that she gave me the amount of responsibility she did. She believed in me to be capable, and successful, even when I didn’t believe in myself.
Cathy was formidable and impressive and truly seemed eternal. Her presence was so strong it seemed impossible that there would ever come a time when she wasn’t around. The opportunities she gave me became my anchor throughout college in ways I never could have predicted.
In the weeks and now months since graduating from Notre Dame, I’ve already embarked on so many new journeys. I wish I could tell Cathy what I’m doing, show her that I’m still working hard. Make no mistake, my successes are entirely a product of my own hard work, but it feels wrong not to share them with Cathy.