Faith’s call: Xavier University nun never stops helping
CINCINNATI (AP) — It’s no easy task, living a great life.
That distinction is reserved for rare circumstances when a person lives their life in a way that leaves the people around them in a better place.
Which is why no one was surprised when Sister Rose Ann Fleming was recently named a Great Living Cincinnatian by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.
“Humbled,” is how Fleming put it. “There are so many wonderful people in this city that I feel are much more deserving than I am. But, as the Xavier players often say when they receive an award: ‘To God be the glory.’”
How does one live greatly?
In Fleming’s case, the 86-year-old nun’s story is well-known and well-documented.
She’s spent the last three and a half decades at Xavier University as a teacher, academic advisor, special assistant to the president, NCAA faculty athletics representative, and all-around helper.
She’s appeared in numerous articles over the years in both local and national publications, as well as a 2014 book about her life entitled “Out of Habit: My Life as Xavier University’s unlikely point guard.”
“The story of Sister Rose Ann Fleming and what she’s done as far as academic advising is well known across the country,” said Greg Christopher, Xavier’s athletic director and vice president for administration.
Fleming will be forever linked to Xavier — her own basketball jersey hangs from the Cintas Center rafters with the rest of the school’s best — and the Musketeers are more than fine with that.
But her story isn’t finished because she isn’t.
“Everyone thinks Sister Rose Ann Fleming (and) basketball players graduating,” said Christopher.
And for good reason. Xavier’s currently graduated 109 straight men’s basketball seniors dating back to the 1985-1986 season.
“She’s the one that started that and it has clearly marched on,” said Christopher, who first met Sister on his interview at Xavier in the spring of 2013. “When you start rattling off her career, some of the things she has done or does — really? Sister did that?
“She was a school president? She’s a lawyer and still practices?
“People don’t realize the broad impact. A lot of times you think of careers as either broad or deep, but rarely both.
“The personal impact she’s had on thousands of young men and women, just speaking for Xavier. If there was some sort of Mount Rushmore of Xavier, Sister needs to be on that.”
Fleming’s childhood is a window to where she is today. You can see what she cares about based on what she’s been through.
Her parents lost their first child about a week after they brought him home.
Her mother, Mary, prayed that the family would be blessed with another child.
They were. In August of 1932, Fleming and her twin brother, Tom, were born.
As a young girl, Fleming recalls a conversation her mother had with a friend about how lucky they were to have twins.
“She was distraught with the loss of (their first) child,” said Fleming. “The doctor had told her she’d had a painful delivery, a bad delivery. She’d had a Caesarean (section). They wanted children and she prayed and prayed and she said to her friend that day, ‘I will always believe in prayer now because I feel like God answered my prayer twice, he sent me twins.’”
While the twins were still young, their mother got sick, Fleming started praying the rosary after dinner with her dad and brother.
When the children were 11, their mother died.
That loss forced Fleming to find faith.
“From that time on, Dad started to go to Mass every day and occasionally I would go with him,” she said. “And then all of a sudden I was going with him every day. So I think I learned a lot about the goodness of God in our lives and to trust him.”
In high school, Fleming decided she wanted to become a nun.
Her father told her that he promised her mother he would make sure the children both graduated from college.
Fleming graduated from Mount St. Joseph University in 1954.
Before she entered the convent, the young woman traveled across Europe with her aunt. When she returned, she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame on September 8, 1954. That’s where she started her teaching career.
Eventually, she spent 15 years away from teaching as an administrator at her alma mater, Summit Country Day, as superintendent and then as president of Trinity College.
But she found herself wanting to know what students were like again, so she took an opportunity to come to Xavier and teach English.
Fleming has three master’s degrees, a doctorate in education administration and, after her career at Xavier took off, she went back to school and got her law degree.
“Because I was working here and going to law school at night I had no time to become one of these clerks for a district court ... that really gives you a shoo-in into an important place in law and I didn’t really care,” said Fleming. “I thought I know that Legal Aid helps people who can’t afford attorneys. So I’ll do that.”
Most of what she does is family law, probate or bankruptcy. About five or six times a year, though, she lends her services to criminal cases.
“Well, I’ve wanted to,” said Fleming. “I have the evenings and weekends to research. I used to have to go to the law library all the time. Now, you just pull up Google and you put in what you want to know and you get a database.”
Fleming will turn 87 in August.
She usually wakes up each day around 4 a.m. and spends a couple of hours in prayer.
Then she goes to Mass at Bellarmine Chapel on Xavier’s campus.
“That’s been something that’s got me through,” said Fleming.
Of all the things she’s done and still does, the thread that ties them together is her willingness to help.
“I don’t know that I have met a more selfless or humble person,” said Christopher. “Anytime I’m having a bad day I think of Sister Rose Ann and the energy she brings to each day.”
At the end of each day, Fleming asks herself a simple question before she goes to sleep. It’s something she picked up from a book called “Servant Leadership,” by Robert Greenleaf.
“When you go to bed at night, and you look back at your day, can you answer yes to the question: ‘Did I help anybody today? Is anybody better off because I crossed their path or they crossed my path?’
“I always thought that was a great question to ask myself,” said Fleming. “I don’t want to run past anybody that needs help.”
It’s a simple thing, to help, she says.
What Fleming’s done, though, is far from simple.
Year after year she meets new students and, year after year, she invests in them in a way that makes them realize their potential.
That’s why when former players come back to visit they always stop by to see Sister.
“So many of our former players that either play or did play professional basketball, they roll back in here and they still seek Sister out,” said Christopher. “That’s a testament to the impact she’s had on so many individuals.”
Lenny Brown knows that impact well.
People in this town remember Brown, a 1999 Xavier grad, for his game-winning shot at the buzzer to beat the University of Cincinnati in the 1996-1997 Crosstown Shootout when the Bearcats were ranked No. 1 in the country.
That shot is the first thing Fleming mentions when asked about Brown, a memory that elicits a smile.
“It stunned everybody at UC,” she said. “But what I really remember about Lenny is he was having a miserable time and he decided to go home. He got on a bus and just left.”
Brown didn’t make it home to Wilmington, Delaware. A Xavier staffer was able to get him off the bus and bring him back to campus, Fleming said.
“I did not know that he had brought Lenny back here,” said Fleming. “The next morning I was coming out of the church at Bellarmine and I walked out the back door and there’s Lenny sitting on the church steps.
“I said, ‘Lenny, what are you doing here?’
“He said, ‘I’m waiting for you.’”
The story was that Brown had left school without taking a final exam because he feared he would fail, said Fleming.
“She always told the players she’s an open book ... anything you need, come find her,” said Brown. “That’s where I was mentally. When I came back, I just needed somebody to talk to away from basketball because I knew what the coaches were gonna say.
“She reminded me how far I’ve come. She brought up things like being the first one in my family to go to college. Stuff like that really helped me rethink my decision of leaving school.”
Fleming called the head of the biology department, who said, “I want Lenny to sign a contract with me. The contract said, ‘I will come this summer, I will do my homework and I will accept whatever grade I earn.’
“He signed it, he did it and he passed and he became eligible again,” said Fleming.
For Brown, Sister’s help effectively changed the course of his life.
Without Fleming, Brown said, “It was basically written on the wall. I’m glad Sister was at Xavier I’ll just say that because that was a tough time in my life. It was my first time away from home. I already knew if I would have left and she wasn’t there it wouldn’t have been good for me. My life wouldn’t be — not that I’m a big successful person — I just know I wouldn’t be where I am today without Sister.”
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com