KANSAS CITY — When Avila University is mentioned, more often than not, so is Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Olive Louise Dallavis, president of the south Kansas City university for 25 years. The metro area lost a leader in education, faith and fundraising when she died Dec. 1. She was 95.
The visitation and funeral Mass were Dec. 7, at Nazareth Living Center in St. Louis, where she had lived since 2009. Burial followed the Liturgy at Resurrection Cemetery, also in St. Louis. Avila is planning a memorial service to be held in January near her birthday in Kansas City.
Sister Olive Louise was a leader at Avila for 57 years, since its days as the College of St. Teresa on St. Teresa’s Academy campus — she began teaching there in 1952, after teaching first graders in St. Louis and opening the first kindergarten at Visitation School in Kansas City. At St. Teresa’s she taught music, Italian, humanities and education classes at the academy and college. She also taught music at St. Elizabeth School and gave weekend music lessons. In 1960 Sister Olive Louise was named professor of music and dean of students at the college.
She also assisted college president Sister Mary Daniel Tammany with plans for moving, expanding and building a new college campus at 119th and Wornall Road. Later that year, when Sister Mary Daniel was diagnosed with leukemia and died shortly thereafter, Sister Olive Louise was named “acting president.” That position became official in 1961.
In a 2009 Catholic Key story, she said she had always wanted to teach. “When I played with my younger brother and sister, I used to entice them to play school, sometime with fruit, sometimes candy, that they could eat at recess. I was always the teacher. Of course, recess was the end of their lessons for the day because once my brother got his treat, he’d disappear.”
Mary Tulia Dallavis, “Meri” to her family, was one of five children — Al, Frank, Meri, Ida and Bud — born to Italian immigrants Louis and Olivia Dallavis. Louis was a tall, red-haired Venetian who spoke only Italian. Tiny, dark-haired Olivia, raised in the Trent Province in Northern Italy, spoke broken English.
The Dallavis children attended St. John’s, a two-room school staffed by Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in downtown St. Louis. Over the years Meri’s respect for the Sisters grew and she began thinking about entering the convent someday.
When she was cast as a teacher in her third grade play, she dressed in a black skirt and white blouse and, imitating the Sisters, played her role “like a strict disciplinarian.” When not in school Meri spent hours reading in the library.
She also dreamed of becoming a movie star. “This was the 1920s and ‘30s: Movies were the rage. Everyone wanted to be an actor or actress,” she recalled in the 2009 story.
After graduating from Rosati-Kain High School, Meri decided to enter the congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, and stay in St. Louis. She was soon too busy “learning to be a Sister” to dream of stardom.
She said she quickly realized that religious life was a special life. In honor of her parents, she received the name Olive Louise, and kept it even after many took back their baptismal names.
In 1948, she received her Bachelor of Arts in Voice from Fontbonne College. In 1952, she received a master’s degree in vocal literature from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She moved to Kansas City that same year to teach at St. Teresa’s Academy and the College of St. Teresa. She later pursued doctoral studies in higher education administration at both the University of Illinois and Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
In 1960, the young music teacher was appointed to serve as acting president of the new college, which flabbergasted older faculty members. When later asked how she felt about being appointed “acting President” she laughed. “The title was perfect” because it said she was acting President” She had wanted to be an actress so it was a joke between her and God. She said she thought, “God, you are indeed a great God.”
A hands-on leader, in the early days Sister Olive Louise made minor repairs around campus, met with donors, cooked meals, mowed the grounds and slept in a chair bed in the new administration building.
Serving as Avila’s president for 25 years, Sister Olive Louise cultivated advice, friendship and donations from Kansas City’s business elites at a time when women weren’t typically involved in her position. Corporate and railroad executives and their families, who in turn sent their children to Avila, became lasting friends. She earned numerous accolades for community service and humanitarianism, and, in 1978, became the first woman religious to be named a Lady Commander of Merit by Pope Paul VI. She was named one of America’s Beautiful Activists in 1973, and invited Olivia to travel with her to New York for the ceremony. Mother and daughter had a wonderful time, staying in a hotel suite once occupied by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
“In the 60’s and 70’s, not many women were out there asking businessmen for money,” Sister Olive Louise told the Catholic Key in the 2009 story. “For that matter, not many women were college presidents,” a fact which tickled her.
Other awards and recognitions included: The Jefferson Award for Distinguished Community Service by the American Institute for Public Service (1981);
• Named Career Woman of the Year for her leadership and contributions to the Kansas City community;
• Excellence in Fundraising award by the Kansas City Council on Philanthropy,
• Nonprofit Professional of the Year (1994).
Sister Olive Louise also served on numerous boards throughout her long career.
She retired as president in 1985, but didn’t quit working. She worked in the advancement office until June 30, 2009; then she was named president emerita.
She was excited about retirement. “I know I’m going to like it,” she told the Key. “The Sisters are so much fun. Fun is just doing the best you can with the time you have. I see opportunities and I’m just going to enjoy them.” She looked forward to having the time to pray at Nazareth. She couldn’t wait “to be free of obligations, to be able to go to chapel and actually spend time with the Lord. To walk in the gardens and enjoy my prayer life.” Prayer became her ministry until her death.
Her most lasting legacies are Avila-centered. This year marked the 40th anniversary of Avila’s Steer Dinner and Auction. Begun as a modest steak dinner in 1976 by Sister Olive Louise when the university was gifted with the American Royal Grand Champion steer, “Jimmy C,” the Steer Dinner has become one of the oldest charity galas in the city, raising millions of dollars in student scholarships. The SOLD scholarship fund (her initials) has raised more than $9 million for student scholarships since it began as a tribute to her leadership. The Harry S. Truman Distinguished Speaker Series is another of her legacies. An admirer of President Truman, in 1971 Sister Olive Louise secured exclusive rights to the name and began the series with Truman’s first administrative assistant and Ford Foundation vice president David E. Bell. Civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, conservative commentator William F. Buckley and Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum were some of the speakers over the years.
Sister Olive Louise served as president until 1985. Under her leadership Avila grew into the university it is today. More than half the campus facilities were built during her presidency; Avila became co-educational and athletics were introduced.
She celebrated her 75th Jubilee as a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet earlier this year. “Sister Olive was an icon in the Kansas City region that will be remembered for her bold and fearless leadership, devotion to her faith and dedication to Avila. She was visionary in recognizing that to be successful, Avila needed to relocate to south Kansas City. She recognized the importance of reaching out … serving adults and non-traditional students at a time when few were doing so. It was part of her commitment to ‘serving the dear neighbor without distinction’ by recognizing where the greatest need to enhance learning rested,” said Ronald Sleptiza, Ph.D., CSJA, current university president. “We remain guided by this vision and committed to these values. In this sense, it is her greatest legacy.”