Edna C. Shalala Passes Away

Centenarian was an accomplished lawyer, tennis champion, and mother of UM President Donna E. Shalala.

UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (December 02, 2014) — During more than a century of living, Edna Shalala 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, Ohio.

The mother of University of Miami President and former Clinton cabinet member Donna E. Shalala, Edna Shalala passed away on Tuesday, December 2. She was 103.

“A true icon” is how Stuart A. Miller, chair of the UM Board of Trustees, described Edna Shalala, saying that the entire University community is saddened by her passing. “She led a tremendous life and was supportive of so many elements of our community. Her vibrancy at age 103 was an inspiration to all who knew her.”

Marriage and family life
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.

Distinguished law career
Edna Shalala 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.

“Ahead of her time and an inspiration to all of us” is how Edna Shalala’s daughter, Diane Shalala Fritel, described her. “When she passed the bar, she said she wanted to practice law for 50 years—and she did. She was amazing.”

Often seen at the White House
During her daughter’s tenure as secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration, Edna Shalala visited the White House on several occasions, once describing her visits as “exciting” in a February 2008 Miami Herald article.

“It was very impressive to see everybody walking in behind the president and getting to go in line and meet the president,” Edna Shalala said.

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 on Old Cutler Road, 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.

“I do everything a young person does—classes, lectures, water exercises, yoga,” Shalala said in The Miami Herald article.

She was a familiar figure at many UM events, attending talks and lectures by prominent visitors such as the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton, her daughter’s former boss.

As part of a special birthday celebration in 2005, she received a portrait of herself painted by famous neo-pop artist Romero Britto; the occasion also served as a benefit for UM women’s and men’s tennis, raising $300,000 for the teams.

An accomplished tennis player
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 was inducted into the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame. She competed on the senior circuit until suffering a stroke in 1996.

Impactful legacy
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 supports the continued success of women’s athletic teams at UM.

The inaugural Edna C. Shalala 5K Run/Walk, to be held on UM’s Coral Gables campus December 13, will benefit that fund.

She is survived by her sister, Louise McGann (Cleveland, Ohio); daughters Donna E. Shalala and Diane (Robert) Fritel (Wolford, North Dakota); grandchildren and great-grandchildren: Anastasia (Corey) Martin, Claire, Cecelia, and Lydia (Buffalo, Minnesota); Katrina (Thomas) Bueckers, Ariana, Jett, Caiden, and Annika (Cedar Rapids, Iowa); Sara (Douglas) Johnson, RJ and Julia (McLean, Virginia); and James (Kelly) Fritel, Andrew, Matthew, and Grace (Spring Green, Wisconsin); and many nieces and nephews.

She was predeceased in death 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.

In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Edna C. Shalala Fund by clicking here, or sending a check made out to the “University of Miami” to the following address: University of Miami Athletics, Hecht Athletic Center, Attention: Jenn Strawley,
 5821 San Amaro Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33146.

A private service for family members will be held in Cleveland.

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