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Omaha Magazine

Showing Mercy

Nov 22, 2017 11:08AM ● By Carol Crissey Nigrelli
Caroline Hinrichs took her marketing, branding, business development, and sales experience and kicked it up a few notches. She co-founded Omaha’s first experiential marketing firm, where consumers participate directly in a marketing program. She has since positioned herself as a business development leader, finding her niche with architectural and design firms as a go-between—someone who understands the client’s perspective and asks strategic questions that often go unanswered.

Theresa Franco, vice president of Cancer and Radiology Services at Nebraska Medicine, never used her nursing degrees to work in cancer care until the University of Nebraska Medical Center came calling. It hired her to build its stem cell and bone marrow transplant program. That program morphed into the Lied Transplant Center and, more recently, the Buffett Cancer Center, which Franco’s team helped design and develop.

Mary Higgins, president of Marian High School and the first alumna to hold that position, once barged into the office of the director of intramural sports at Creighton University and demanded that he start a women’s sports program. It worked.

In the spring of 1973, the Creighton senior played catcher on the university’s first women’s softball team. After earning a master’s degree in physical education at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Higgins coached softball at her undergraduate alma mater. She later served as a Creighton administrator.

Three highly successful women in three distinct professions, yet all exhibit similar characteristics: they’re dynamic, easy-going, self-assured, intelligent women who possess impeccable people skills and have learned to juggle the demands of a family with the demands of a high-profile career.

They also share an educational background. Hinrichs, Franco, and Higgins went to all-girls high schools. The reasons for attending their respective schools differ, but the results echo each other.

“My parents were interested in the benefits of a single-sex education, especially for girls, and they had me tour a couple,” says Hinrichs, who attended Westside schools through eighth grade. “They sort of let it be my decision, but at the same time encouraged me to make it.”

Once Hinrichs toured Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart at 36th and Burt streets, the idea of an all-girls school didn’t seem so bad, even though she had no friends or connections there.

“I loved the building, the small class sizes, the formality of it, and its tradition. I really loved the high level of academics. I craved that,” she says.

Franco, who grew up in a devout Catholic family near 48th and Grover streets, says she never really had a choice of going anywhere else but Mercy High School.

“My mom and her sisters all went there, and I had three older sisters there,” she says. “My father made it very clear to me that’s where I was going.”

But did she like it?

“I loved Mercy,” says Franco. “I felt at home because I grew up in a home of several women, plus a lot of my classmates from St. Thomas More went there.” From the outset, Franco’s personality began to emerge. “I was determined not to be ‘another Franco girl.’ My sisters were quieter than I was, kind of compliant, but I wanted to carve my own reputation.”

The student known for her spirituality and kindness went on to earn a nursing degree at Creighton in 1978 and a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Texas.

Family ties never entered into Mary Higgins’ decision to choose Marian High School.

“I have no idea why I went there,” she laughs. “We lived fairly close, in St. Bernard’s parish and lots of my classmates from there were going to Marian, so I figured, ‘Well, I’ll just go with the flow.’”

She entered the school at 74th Street and Military Avenue in 1965, a mere 10 years after Marian opened. She “had a spectacular experience as far as involvement and leadership opportunities,” serving as class president three years running.

“The only thing I didn’t like was we had no competitive athletics, as was the case in all other high schools, because it was pre-Title IX,” referring to the federal mandate passed in 1972 that equalized the playing field for girls in sports.

The same self-confidence, chutzpah, and conviction of her beliefs that led Higgins to demand women’s sports at Creighton seeped into all three women during their high school years. Each cites the ability to take risks, to speak up in class without feeling self-conscious, to meet high expectations, to have opportunities to lead, and to participate in all areas of school life as the biggest rewards of their education.

The lack of boys in their classes never registered a blip.

“I didn’t define my experience at Duchesne as ‘not being distracted by boys,’” says Hinrichs, 35, who holds a degree from Colorado College in Spanish and theater. “I was around strong women, and that set me up for not framing anything around, ‘how do men affect this?’”

Taking boys out of the equation doesn’t seem to affect performance. All three schools boast a 100 percent graduation rate. College acceptances also reach 100 percent.

“Scholarship money given to our graduates topped $20 million last year,” says Dr. Laura Hickman, Duchesne principal and an alumna.

So why the continued debate over the benefits of an all-girls education?

“I have no idea,” Hickman laughs. “It probably stems from not experiencing it. They have no idea how absolutely transformative it can be.”

Higgins now sees the transformation she underwent from the perspective of an administrator.

“I look across the student body and they’re wearing the same uniform, they don’t have a dollop of makeup on, they haven’t agonized over their hair,” she observes with a sense of pride. “We’re not free from social pressures. We just remove many layers.”

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This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of B2B.

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