By Pete Kennedy
“I’m not an early, early riser,” Dr. Rosalie Mirenda says. “I like to be in my bed until 6 o’clock or so, and then I get up to exercise.”
Mirenda, 79, is the outgoing president of Neumann University, a co-ed, Catholic Franciscan school with a verdant campus in Aston, Pa. The school’s fifth president and the second layperson to hold the job, she plans to retire in June.
She starts her morning on the treadmill because she spends much of her day sitting at a desk or meeting table, trying to help the school “expand the human capacity that gives our lives passion and purpose,” as she phrased it in 1996 when she assumed the office. Each evening, she eats a light dinner and uses the burst of energy to respond to emails from earlier in the day.
During the two decades that Mirenda has served as president, Neumann College became Neumann University and has grown significantly. Its total enrollment has more than tripled from 900 to 2,900, the campus has expanded from 14 to 68 acres and added state-of-the-art residence halls and other facilities. New academic programs, including three doctorates, have been added. Whereas 20 years ago fans had just nine Neumann Knights athletic teams to cheer on, today they have two dozen.
“My work ethic came about as a result of to whom I’m born and when I was born, what was going on during those years,” she said. “When I make a commitment, I try and honor it with all of my might.”
Raised in South Philadelphia, Mirenda was the daughter of Italian immigrants, their first born in America.
“The Italian culture in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, there were very few women who were being pushed to think about formal higher education,” Mirenda said. “But I had an incredibly wise father and a mom who supported him.”
After graduating from Hallahan High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Villanova University and went to work at St. Agnes Hospital.
“My aspirations there were to be best nurse I could be. Because I had a degree, I began to be asked to help teach in the [hospital’s] school of nursing,“ she said. “That gave me my taste of education and teaching, and that became an important piece of my life.”
Mirenda first came to Neumann as a nursing instructor in 1973, when the school was called Our Lady of Angels College. She became chair of the department in 1984 and was named Vice President of Academic Affairs in 1990.
She received her master’s degree from University of Pennsylvania and her Ph.D. from Widener University. She has served on the boards of Seton Hall University, Archmere Academy, Holy Child Academy, and the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, to name a few. She served on the board of the World Meeting of Families in 2016, and during his visit Pope Francis awarded her the Benemerenti Medal in recognition of her service to the Catholic Church.
In 2009, Neumann University opened the Mirenda Center for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development, a 72,000-
square-foot facility named after Dr. Mirenda and her husband of 56 years, Tony.
The couple have lived in the same house in Middletown, Pa., near Linvilla Orchards, since 1980. Tony, she said, is a behind-the-scenes force — a banking executive and selfless husband who has supported her and their three children’s careers. They met at a Frank Sinatra event hosted by the Sons of Italy in South Philadelphia, and his empowering confidence in her reminded her of her father.
“I knew if we had daughters, or if I was his wife, that it wouldn’t stifle in any way our potential,” she said.
She instills that same confidence in the students she meets on Neumann’s campus, telling them they too can rise from humble beginnings to become university presidents and do other great things.
As she prepares to step down, she knows the staff and faculty will maintain Neumann’s high standards as they carry
out new projects, like a collaborative pre-law effort with Widener School of Law and a similar program with Drexel’s School of Engineering.
“I won’t be here to prod and move them along, but I tell them, if it doesn’t happen, I’m going to come back to haunt everyone,” she said.
Mirenda doesn’t have retirement plans, per se. She wants to cook some proper Italian meals and read a novel from cover to cover.
“I like to garden. I love to be at the beach, just walking. I would love to go back to Italy for a trip one day,” she said. “But none of that is planned. Honestly, my plan is to go back to the basics.”