Edna C. Shalala passed away Tuesday, December 2, at age 103. During more than a century of living, Edna witnessed a multitude of milestones achieved by women – from the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote, to Sally Ride’s historic flight aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, making her the first American woman in space.
Diminutive in size but a giant in her accomplishments, Shalala also made history of her own, becoming the first female attorney of Syrian-Lebanese descent to practice law in Cleveland.
Edna C. Shalala was born Edna Smith on October 13, 1911. She married James Abraham Shalala in 1939, and two years later, the couple had twin daughters: Donna and Diane. James was a prominent leader for Cleveland’s Lebanese-Americans, urging them to become politically active and send their children to college.
The couple encouraged their daughters to maintain ties with Lebanese relatives who lived in the neighborhood.
Edna was an Ohio State Buckeye, Class of 1933. She was one of the first Arab-American graduates of the university. She majored in physical education and held down four jobs to make it through school: tennis instructor, restaurant worker, cloakroom attendant and nanny.
She was a teacher for many years. When she was 38, she went to law school while teaching and raising her daughters. When Shalala passed the bar exam in 1952, she retired from teaching and, with a fellow female law student, started her own law firm. The two ran a successful probate practice for many years, one that Shalala continued on her own after her partner died in 1968. She was the first female attorney of Syrian-Lebanese descent to practice law in Cleveland, filing petitions, writing briefs and representing clients in court for 50 years. She retired in 2002.
When Donna Shalala became president of the University of Miami, Mother Shalala, as she was affectionately known by the UM community; spent much of her time in Coral Gables, living with her daughter at the presidential residence, attending UM functions, playing golf, and taking part in many of the institution’s activities, including those at the Herbert Wellness Center and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
She was a familiar figure at many University events, attending talks and lectures by prominent visitors such as the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton, her daughter’s former boss. Edna Shalala was a nationally-ranked tennis player in the 1930s and ’40s, winning women’s state tennis titles in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. In 1938 she played on Forest Hills’ center court against the top-ranked female tennis player in the nation, Alice Marble. She remained active in the sport even well into her 80s, playing three or four days a week and competing in several tournaments. In 1980, Shalala as inducted into the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame. She competed on the senior circuit until suffering a stroke in 1996.
Edna Shalala’s legacy will impact many, especially female student-athletes at the University of Miami. The Edna C. Shalala Fund for Women’s Athletics, created to honor her on the occasion of her 100th birthday, helps fund women’s athletics and athletic teams. The inaugural Edna C. Shalala 5K Run/Walk, which was held on UM’s Coral Gables campus on Dec. 13, benefitted that fund.
She is survived by her sister, Louise McGann (Cleveland, Ohio); daughters Donna E. Shalala and Diane (Robert) Fritel (Wolford); grandchildren and great-grandchildren: Anastasia (Corey) Martin, Claire, Cecilia and Lydia (Buffalo, Minn.); Katrina (Thomas) Bueckers, Ariana, Jett, Caiden and Annika (Cedar Rapids, Iowa); Sara (Douglas) Johnson, RJ and Julia (McLean, Va.); and James (Kelly) Fritel, Andrew, Matthew and Grace (Spring Green, Wis.); and many nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her husband, James Shalala in 1968, her parents, brothers Fred and George, and sisters Nellie Melito, Florence O’Boyle, Mary Batal and Pauline Long.
Funeral mass was held in Ohio on Dec. 13, 2014.
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