Campus Conversations: Shayla Keough Rumely ‘76
by Maura Boston '17 and Jessie Wurzer '17
Meet Shayla Keough Rumely ‘76, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees who was recently elected to the Board of Fellows. In this interview, she talks about upholding the University’s Catholic character, remembers the legacy of her parents, shares stories about Father Ted, and much more.
The Keough name has such a strong presence at Notre Dame, but many people may not realize that your parents did not attend Notre Dame. What drew them to the ND family?
My parents grew up as Irish Catholics in the Midwest, so the Fighting Irish were a source of great pride for them, as was the case for many Irish Americans. They were drawn to Father Ted’s reputation as a leader in doing the right thing, and they were anxious to be part of Notre Dame as a force for good.
They knew my siblings and I would be able to broaden ourselves and deepen our spiritual and intellectual selves if we were able to go to Notre Dame. My dad had a phrase that made me crazy, and it’s still ringing in my ears. He would say, “stay nervous.” What he meant by that is ask yourself “am I stretching myself, or have I fallen into a comfortable spot where I am not being asked to do anything out of my comfort zone?”
My parents saw their core beliefs embedded in Notre Dame. Father Ted asked my father to chair the Board when he was President of the Coca-Cola Company. He was very busy and traveling all over the world. My mom told my father, “Don, you can’t, it’s a lot.” Father Ted flew to Atlanta, had dinner with them and said something like, “If you get to the pearly gates Mickie and Don, don’t you think they’re going to want to hear you were the chair of the Board for Notre Dame?” Father Ted had a way of making you say yes when you would rather be in your bathrobe and slippers.
You were in the first class of women on campus in 1972. How do your experiences from that time of change at the University influence your thinking as a member of the Board of Trustees?
My time at Notre Dame was terrific. I’m not one of those who thought it was a hard thing. I was 18 years old and it was an opportunity to be in the first class of women at Notre Dame. What a privilege.
There were certainly some awkward moments. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of scorecards being held up at the dining hall when you walked in. You didn’t make a lot of eye contact with guys for fear that you would be asked out. There was some weirdness of being the only woman in class and being asked to speak for all of womanhood. It would be handled differently today, but at that time we just all put our noses down, did our jobs, and tried not to let it bother us. The greatest thing was the women. They were the foundation of my adulthood, and a remarkable set of women who are still my very close friends.
As a Board member, my experience in that first class makes me able to embrace change. I recognize that traditions have a place, but I think I’m pretty good at distinguishing between what is fundamental to the University and what is a tradition that can evolve. Notre Dame is very different from what it was almost 50 years ago when I was a student. We must try to be open to loving those changes, loving those differences, and seeing how they serve the students, the Church, and the world.
Can you tell us a bit about your career path after Notre Dame, and what ultimately led you to serve on the Board of Trustees?
My career path was an interesting one. After Notre Dame, I went straight to law school at Emory. I practiced law for a number of years and I tried to like it, but realized that I belonged on the other side of the table. Eventually, I got a great opportunity to spearhead the transformation of the local daily newspaper for lawyers as the paper’s publisher. It was really a legal bulletin board in Atlanta for court calendars and legal ads. My job was to turn it into something that lawyers would actually read. I did that for nine years, leading a full editorial and advertising staff and a printing operation.
As publisher, I was responsible for the financial well-being of the newspaper as opposed to the specific content. I never let advertisers influence what content we published and I am very proud of that. That experience helped me learn about the importance of separation of powers, which has come in handy in my Board service.
When I started my ninth year as publisher of the paper, I had two small children at home and I realized I wanted to be full time with them. With a third child on the way, I was very busy, but I threw myself into non-profit board service, eventually chairing a local theater board and the board of a K-12 school in Atlanta where I learned about the role of a trustee.
As a trustee, you give guidance at a policy level and represent the institution to the rest of the world. You are also responsible for growing the institution’s financial resources and making sure they have the right people in leadership seats. Once you have done that, you support the leadership. My dad taught me that a big part of that is figuring out what keeps them up at night and how to best support them on those issues.
In 1993 I was asked to serve on the Advisory Council for the Law School at Notre Dame, which I did for 10 years. That experience really helped me be ready to serve on the Board of Trustees. When Father Malloy called to ask me to join the Board, he said “just say yes.” It was an easy answer.
Can you explain how the Board of Trustees and the Fellows work? As a Board member, what do you find to be some of the most difficult parts of your service to the University?
The Board of Fellows is the original governing body of Notre Dame from back in the day of Father Sorin. The Board of Fellows was always Holy Cross Priests, and in 1967, under Father Ted’s leadership, they established a lay Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees is the main governing body except on matters that are reserved for the Fellows. The Fellows now include twelve members, with six Holy Cross members and six lay members from the Board of Trustees.
I was appointed as a Fellow last May, along with Sarah Martinez Tucker. I’ve only been part of a few meetings so far, but our primary role is to safeguard Notre Dame’s Catholic character. We also elect Trustees based on the recommendations of governance and the nominating committee, which are then ratified by the rest of the Board. If there were a crisis of some kind on the Board of Trustees, that would fall to us to handle.
Notre Dame is a vast enterprise. The thing I worry about as a Trustee and fellow is keeping up. Do I have all the information that I need to be a good fiduciary of the University? Of course, our work is made easier by having the right leadership in place on the Board and in Father John and his team.
Keough Hall, a residence hall on West Quad, is named after your mother. How would you describe what it means to be a Notre Dame woman and how do you think your mother embodied those qualities or that spirit?
My answer to this is different today than it would have been in my twenties. Being a Notre Dame woman is about being kind, strong, faithful, grounded, courageous, and convicted. It’s also about being humble, which is something I probably didn’t really understand until my later years. My mom was all of those things.
I think young people today understand humility a lot more than we did in my day. We were excited about women getting to do new and important things, but we thought the important things were our titles. I don’t see that as much in today’s young people, and it’s great. Accomplishments are important and you need to do well, but it’s more important to do good.
Notre Dame women need to stay strong, be grounded in faith, not be afraid to speak their minds, but also be humble like the Blessed Virgin. I told Father Ted that we are so fortunate to be Notre Dame women, because in humbling times we have an example in the Blessed Virgin that we can revere. To be humble is not to be ashamed. It is to recognize that we don’t have to be the star of the show and we can accomplish great things through humility. My mother was a great example of that.
My dad was my hero growing up, but as I grew older I added my mom to my hero list. There would not have been any Don Keough without Mickie Keough. My dad was always the first one to point that out. She kept him grounded. She taught me by example that sometimes ... you can accomplish more through quiet leadership and supporting the star. I really did not understand my mother’s role and her humility until I got older. I think it would be hard to stand in the shadow of an extremely strong person like she did. However, she only did that in public. When she was at home she certainly was the ruler.
Speaking of rulers, I have a funny story about my mom. She was fiercely American Irish, and once had the opportunity to meet the Queen of England. My mom announced to the family that she would not curtsy to the Queen because she was an American citizen and not a subject of the British Queen. She didn’t mean it out of disrespect; she was just a fiercely independent person and also very Irish. I love that story.
In your work for the University, did you know or have the chance to work with Father Ted?
From the time my dad became involved at Notre Dame, which was not that long after I went there, he and Father Ted became very close. They died within a week of each other, which was remarkable.
However, I first knew Father Ted because he was the one to make sure women were admitted to Notre Dame. He was our main support system, especially during that first year when there were so few of us. He would come to our dorms and make it very clear that no matter what was going on externally, things were going to work out. Later on, he worked closely with us on our celebration of co-education at 25 years.
When my father got sick, Father Ted came down with Father John and said a mass at my parent’s house. He was a lovely person and I really think he will be a saint someday.
As we enter a new decade, what changes or growth are you most proud of at Notre Dame, and what goals do you think the University needs to strive for in the coming years?
I’m most proud that we have done such a great job of maintaining our Catholic character. We are really focused on being a force for good in the world. I am also so proud of our students. Much more so than I when I was a student in the 70s, our students are servant leaders. They are attuned to service and have a much broader view of the world and their place in it, with a much greater desire to do good in addition to doing well. I’m so proud of that.
I’m also very proud of the diversity of our student body and how our diversity is growing, and I think we need to continue that growth. I’m also proud that our stature as a research university has grown, yet we’ve maintained our excellence as an undergraduate institution.
Going forward, I think what is important is growth and evolution in those areas and not necessarily big change. We are on the right track. We need to stay focused on providing an unsurpassed undergraduate education, while becoming a premier research University and nurturing our Catholic character. A lot of people are no longer practicing organized religion, so I think we will have to be fierce about protecting and nurturing that Catholic character. We need to continue to diversify the study body, increase our financial aid, and keep attracting the best and brightest at every level including the students, faculty, staff, and Board.
Thank you to Shayla Keough Rumely '76 for taking the time to share your experiences with us and for your dedicated service!
As we continue our campus conversations, we encourage you to tell us who we should talk to. Do you know a woman on campus who has a story to tell? She can be a professor or pianist, coach or chemist, administrator or athlete. We hope you'll help us seek out more Notre Dame women who can share a bit about their lives, so we can all continue to learn from each other. Click here to make a suggestion.