Feature | Irene Coyle: First woman on SLUH faculty

Women play important roles at St. Louis U. High today. Teaching in the classroom, serving in leadership roles, moderating clubs, and coaching sports, the women of SLUH are a valuable and integral part of the community. But less than a century ago, women had yet to walk the halls as SLUH faculty. In 1957, SLUH hired its first female faculty member: librarian Irene Coyle. Coyle dedicated the rest of her life to the betterment of the SLUH community.

Ms. Irene Coyle. Photo | Courtesy of SLUH 1958 Yearbook

Her tenure as librarian stretched until her retirement in 1983, but she stayed involved with SLUH long after that. Many remember her for her spirited personality and her dedication to her profession. 

When SLUH was searching for a librarian in 1957, then-principal Fr. Gerry Shehan, SJ met Coyle while she was waiting tables.

“He was on vacation somewhere in the summer and we needed a librarian,” said Fr. Ralph Houlihan, SJ. “He went into this restaurant and she was waiting tables. They got talking and he said, ‘I’m looking for a librarian.’ She said, ‘I am a librarian.’ That's how she got hired.”

When Coyle was hired, the library was much smaller: it took up the space that is now classrooms M201, M203, and M205. Coyle led the growth of the library, collecting new books, making changes in lighting and seating to improve the space, and eventually moving the library to where it is today in 1971.

Standing at a mere four-feet-six in heels, Coyle demanded respect from students and faculty. She prided herself on running a tight ship in the library, and held the students to high standards of behavior.

“She was in charge, and you knew that you didn’t go in the library and mess around,” said former Assistant Principal for Academics Tom Becvar. “With her stature of four-foot-six, she was powerful, and she made sure that anybody in the library who was doing something they shouldn’t be doing didn’t stay there long.”

From the get-go, Coyle vowed to maintain order in the library. She would not put up with misbehavior, nor would she let her height prevent her from enforcing the rules.

“I use violent and abusive language on people who disrupt my library,” said Coyle in a 1957 Prep News interview.

While strictly enforcing her rules, Coyle earned the respect and affection of the students. Her duties were not limited to organizing and distributing books: she also served as a tutor for any student who needed help.

“Her job was pretty much assisting students in a lot of ways, but she was the type of person who always gave everything she could to any student who needed help,” said Becvar. “If there was a student working on a project, she would spend hours with them and try to help them get what they needed in order to finish that project.”

Coyle’s work day never ended at 3:00 p.m. She saw SLUH as her home, and spent most of her free time at school activities, plays, and sports games.

“She also believed that St. Louis U. High was her life, so she attended just about every event: every game, every dance, every play. She was at everything, and that was her life. She was a little person, but pretty powerful, and she always wanted to be around the students, just to be there,” said Becvar.

Coyle’s involvement during and after the school day indicated her deep love for the school. She exemplified the sentiment of “men and women for others” in every aspect of her life.

“She cared deeply for the well being of the students, she was a force to be reckoned with when she chaperoned at Senior Prom and students knew not to do anything of which she did not approve,” said Greek teacher Mary Lee McConaghy. “She always had the best interests of the students and the school as her top priority and the students knew this and loved and appreciated her and all that she did for them.”

While known for her rigidness in the library, Coyle also engaged in a bit of mischief herself. On one occasion, Houlihan remembers Coyle taking a group of students to tee-pee CBC after winning State in football.

Another tall tale from Coyle’s tenure involves her car, a red Ford Maverick. Once, she parked on a side street off Kingshighway, and her car rolled down the hill and into traffic.

“She lived right off of Kingshighway, and all of a sudden, the car was backing down the street into the middle of Kingshighway,” said Becvar. “She said she felt like she was watching a demolition derby because cars were hitting her from both sides. And she was sure that she had died, but all of a sudden, as she got out of the car and walked around, she was okay.”

During her 25-year tenure, Coyle made many memories at SLUH and cemented her legacy as a stellar librarian and a passionate member of the community. While she pioneered the way for more women to thrive at SLUH, Coyle was simply a person who cared deeply about a community. Like many other men and women, Coyle will be remembered for the love she had for the students, faculty, and school as a whole.

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