Eleanor Dunfey-Freiburger entered the convent in 1957 because she wanted to serve the world.
As it turned out, she stayed in the United States. After 13 years she took off her habit, fell in love, married, had two children, and began teaching at a small business college in New Hampshire.
Here, beginning in the late 1970s, the world came to her, as well-off students from Asia, followed by refugees from South Africa and Central America, flocked to the school that would become Southern New Hampshire University. Soon, Eleanor and her husband, Jim Freiburger, were teaching students from more than two dozen countries and taking in refugees.
“The world came right to our home,” said Eleanor, now professor of ethics and civic engagement and director of the Faculty Center for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching.
Eleanor also has brought the world to SNHU through her work with Global Citizens Circle, a nonprofit founded by her family that brings human rights leaders, activists and citizens together to discuss issues including war and racism, homelessness and AIDS. She began by inviting interested faculty and students to Circle events, then drew on her international network to bring speakers such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Hillary Clinton and Martin Luther King III to New Hampshire. In recent years, SNHU has co-sponsored Circle events and sent students to South Africa on service missions.
Along the way, Eleanor has advised student groups and worked with faculty to integrate ethics and community service into the curriculum.
President Paul J. LeBlanc says she never preaches: Instead she brings together people representing diverse or opposing interests, encourages them to find common ground, and helps them find practical ways to achieve their goals.
“Eleanor’s great gift is helping empower others, and she does this in a gentle way that often makes her seem much more behind the scenes,” LeBlanc said. “She has a kind of convening gift, the gift to give people self-confidence that they can do big things, whether it’s helping find peace in Northern Ireland and the Middle East or end apartheid in South Africa.”
Bringing people together comes naturally for Eleanor, who got her first lessons in hospitality and service from her parents, Irish Catholic immigrants who left school to work in the textile mills in Lowell, Mass. By the time Eleanor was born in 1938, the youngest of 12 children, her father owned a variety store where all the children helped out. A gregarious man who knew everyone in their immigrant neighborhood, he served as the city’s volunteer welfare commissioner.
Eleanor remembers walking downtown with him to meetings at the Knights of Columbus, an international service organization, and standing on street corners while he chatted with the people they met. If anyone needed a hot meal and a kind word, he invited them home. The dinner table was the center of family life; people of all races, nationalities and social backgrounds were welcome. Her mother fed everyone and listened to their troubles with a quiet sympathy that made each of her children and guests feel special.
“We always had room for someone else at the table,” Eleanor said.
With World War II ending and three of the older boys heading home from the service, Eleanor’s father leased a tiny clam stand on the beach in Hampton, N.H., to get them started in business. Eleanor began work there at age 8, standing on a Coke crate so she could see over the counter.
Her father died when she was 12 and the family moved to Hampton, where they had opened a second clam stand and were building a full-size restaurant. Dunfey’s on C Street opened on Hampton Beach in 1951 with 75 employees, 17-year-old Jerry as the manager, and 13-year-old Eleanor – who was tall for her age and looked older by wearing lipstick – in charge of training the waitresses.
Eleanor chose to attend Emmanuel College in Boston, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame, when her turn came to leave home in 1956. She already knew she wanted more than the limited options available to most college-educated young women in the 1950s: nursing, elementary school teaching, secretarial work, or being a housewife.
Eleanor wanted to be part of an international community dedicated to serving people in need. A decade later, she might have joined the Peace Corps or VISTA, but they didn’t exist. So at the start of her sophomore year, she entered the Sisters of Notre Dame, a teaching order with schools in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America.
“If you were part of this group of women, even if you weren’t in Johannesburg or you weren’t in Bolivia, your sisters were there and you were part of this international network,” she said.
Eleanor’s three older sisters had preceded her into the Sisters of Notre Dame. The eldest, Kay, taught at To-Dai Imperial University in Tokyo. Another sister, Mary, taught eighth grade in Hawaii and the third, Eileen, served as principal of elementary schools in Brighton and Wellesley, Mass. for many years.
“They were all dedicated to service, a social gospel about helping the poor and those who were disadvantaged,” said their cousin Joe Keefe, president and CEO of Pax World Mutual Funds, which sponsors a scholarship for African women students in SNHU’s community economic development program. “She’s an activist: Her whole life has been about trying to improve other people’s lives.”
Eleanor graduated from Emmanuel in 1960 and was assigned by the order to teach English at a series of Catholic high schools in the Boston area. At 26 she was appointed dean of students at Emmanuel. She studied personnel administration at Boston University, then started on a master’s degree in philosophy and theology at the University of San Francisco.
Her third summer at USF she met Jim, a priest from Iowa, in a seminar. Shortly before he returned to Iowa they spent two hours talking about the future of the church. Eleanor remained in San Francisco for a year on scholarship to complete her degree. They sent each other cassette tapes, continuing their conversation.
Both Eleanor and Jim – inspired by the reforms and ecumenical spirit of the Second Vatican Council, as well as by their teachers, who were philosophers and theologians in the vanguard of new church thinking – wanted to be part of building a more open Catholic Church, with married priests and women in the leadership.
“We thought we were really building up a new expression of the church,” Eleanor said. “We were not rejecting the faith, or the social service, or the history of the church’s dedication to the poor. We were trying to translate the many paternalistic attitudes of the church into a more contemporary form that recognized that our goal was to develop people’s conscience and let them decide what, indeed, their lives should be – all the while providing a community of prayer and healing and comfort and certainly direction, but not black-and-white rules.”
But they also knew the church hierarchy would not change overnight, and Jim was keenly aware that it was starting to reassert the black-and-white rules. He felt he could no longer enforce the church’s laws and applied to leave the priesthood.
Eleanor wanted to break down barriers among people, but realized that many people – especially those with different religious beliefs – saw her habit as a barrier. She also felt she had outgrown the convent’s rules, such as the ban on visiting parents. With her mother’s support, she applied to leave the convent. She graduated from USF in May 1970, and by August had completed her withdrawal from the order.
She and Jim had decided to get to know each other better, and both found high school teaching jobs in Burlington, Vt. Two years later they married and started their family. Jim went on to earn his doctorate in educational administration at the University of Connecticut, while Eleanor cared for the children and volunteered.
Meanwhile, most of her brothers were buying and building restaurants and hotels around New England, growing the business that ultimately became Omni Hotels International.
The brothers were active in the Democratic Party and supported the civil rights movement. John F. Kennedy announced his run for president at their hotel in Manchester, and three months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Coretta Scott King and her children spent the summer at brother Walter Dunfey’s home on Lake Winnipesaukee, where she began writing “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.”
In the late 1960s, the brothers bought the historic Parker House in downtown Boston. There they discovered the archives of the Saturday Club, an informal group of leading writers, scientists, and religious men – including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Booker T. Washington – who met at the hotel’s famous restaurant in the late 1800s and early 1900s to discuss the important issues of the day.
The Dunfeys were inspired to host similar gatherings. They founded the New England Circle (later Global Citizens Circle) in 1974 as a kind of extension of their gatherings around the family dinner table.
What made Circle forums different from other events was the Dunfeys’ unique brand of hospitality. Instead of speakers, they had “discussion leaders,” and they carefully arranged the seating so that at each table political leaders listened to refugees, business people heard the concerns of community activists, and academics talked with hotel chambermaids. Through the Circle, the Dunfeys helped build opposition to apartheid, hosting discussions with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. They also engaged in private diplomacy, bringing the opposing factions in Northern Ireland together at the Parker House time and again – an effort that was recognized by a national award for the whole family.
When the Dunfey-Freiburgers moved to New Hampshire so Jim could work in human resources at the Wayfarer Inn, a Dunfey hotel in Bedford, Eleanor began looking for a full-time job. She was a perfect fit for the fledgling Culinary Institute at then-New Hampshire College, which hired her in 1984.
While she and a colleague were washing dishes after a dinner in 1986, he asked for help with a South African student who was pregnant. Tshidi Muendane ’89 was one of many black South African teenagers who had fled their native country after the 1976 Soweto uprising. As international opposition to apartheid grew, governments and nonprofits began offering scholarships to refugees to prepare them for leadership in a post-apartheid South Africa.
Muendane, sponsored by the African American Institute, came to study in the new community economic development program at the college, leaving behind her husband and 3-year-old son. She was due to give birth in April 1986 and would no longer be allowed to live in the dorms. The Dunfey-Freiburgers invited her to live with them and she delivered a healthy baby girl, Mpho’ (meaning “gift”). Eighteen months later, her husband received an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Scholarship and the Muendane family reunited at the Dunfey-Freiburgers’ home.
The Muendanes were the first of many international students to become part of the Dunfey-Freiburgers’ extended family. After they moved out, Virginia Melgar, a refugee from El Salvador, moved in with her newborn daughter, Victoria. The Dunfey-Freiburgers’ two children are godparents to Mpho’ and Victoria.
Luyanda Mzumza ’89, another student from South Africa whom the Dunfey-Freiburgers mentored and invited to Circle events, nominated Jerry Dunfey for South Africa’s highest civilian award, the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, in 2008. Mzumza and the Muendanes – now government officials – were in the audience, and that evening they participated in a Circle-SNHU event in Soweto.
Esteban Lopez ’02 and his wife, Zelma Exheverria ’01, came to SNHU from Ecuador in 2000 to pursue master’s degrees in finance and international business.
Lopez enjoyed the informal gatherings at the Dunfey-Freiburgers’ home, where graduate and undergraduate, international and American, white and minority students talked about their experiences. Eleanor encouraged them to reflect on the meaning of compassion, dignity, human rights and social responsibility, then figure out how to effect change, he said.
“I use her model as my business model to do my day-to-day work: being compassionate, working with one person at a time, in a very socially responsible manner,” said Lopez, director of Diversity Initiatives at the New Hampshire College & University Council.
Eemaan Rameez ’03, a Muslim student from the Maldives, studied public speaking with Eleanor at SNHU’s program in Malaysia in 2001 and planned to spend her last two years of college in Manchester. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, her family was afraid to send her, worried she would become a victim of anti-Muslim violence. Eleanor reassured them in person and met Rameez with a warm winter coat when she arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport in January 2002.
Eleanor encouraged Rameez to join student organizations, helped her obtain a scholarship when her family hit a difficult patch, and mentored her again when she returned in 2007 for her Global M.B.A.
“Mother Theresa once said, ’If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.’ I believe Eleanor has taken it to heart, bringing love and peace to the world with one person at a time through her kind words, her generosity, her undivided attention, and her amazing chocolate chip oatmeal cookies,” Rameez wrote in an email.
Eleanor became the public face of the Circle in 1989 after seven brothers and sisters died within three years from different kinds of cancer. Although she describes those years as “awful,” she became even closer to her healthier older brothers and their families as they shared in the care of their dying siblings.
Around the same time, she moved from the Culinary Institute to the Humanities Department, where she developed courses in ethics and world religions. Jim left the private sector and joined the faculty of the then-Graduate School of Business. (He retired last summer after 20 years of teaching.)
In 1996, Eleanor received the college’s Excellence in Teaching Award and advanced to full professor.
She was named to the university’s first endowed chair, the Papoutsy Chair in Business Ethics, in 2000, just as major corporate scandals unfolded, including the collapse of Enron and Worldcom. As a university-wide professor, she enhanced faculty efforts in all schools to incorporate ethics into the curriculum, bringing together students and faculty for discussions, organizing several major conferences on business ethics and inviting speakers to the campus.
In 2006, Eleanor was named university professor of ethics and civic engagement, a position created to take advantage of her strengths.
Earlier she had supported the establishment of the Center for Service and Community Involvement. Three years ago, working with center Director Sarah Jacobs, she developed the university’s “service learning” program, helping faculty across SNHU integrate community service into their courses. Now computer science students design programs to help health agencies collect data on lead poisoning in children, sociology students learn about foreign cultures by working with recent immigrants, and accounting students help start-up nonprofits with their bookkeeping.
Last year, she also became director of the Faculty Center for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching. She works with all the university’s schools to share great teaching and the creation of interdisciplinary courses.
LeBlanc also believes Eleanor’s influence on SNHU – from creating lasting ties with South Africa’s political history, to infusing the entire school with a concern for ethics, to helping create a dynamic academic culture – has made her part of the university’s DNA as it has grown and matured.
“She has really helped engender a strong sense of social justice on campus and she has helped create a richer academic culture that is actively engaged in questions of teaching and learning,” he said. “She helps the university and helps individuals find their moral compass