Sister Janet A. Fitzgerald was 37 when she was named president of Molloy College in Rockville Centre, making her one of the youngest college presidents in the nation at the time.
During a tenure spanning nearly a quarter-century, she oversaw a vast transformation of the college, which went co-ed, doubled its student enrollment, added three buildings and 21 new majors, and introduced graduate programs.
All along, she kept teaching philosophy, never missing a semester in her 24 years as president, from 1972 to 1996. It was her passion and something she excelled at, colleagues said.
"She was a born teacher," said Sister Miriam Cecile Lenehan, a close friend and longtime co-worker at the college. "She was a brilliant woman but humble. The kids loved her."
Fitzgerald, a member of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville for 60 years, died Sunday. She was 78.
She was so well-respected that she was invited by New York's Cardinal John O'Connor to teach philosophy at St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, where seminarians prepare to become priests, Lenehan said. She did so for more than a decade.
Molloy's current president, Drew Bogner, called Fitzgerald a "visionary" who was a driving force in the college's growth. "She accomplished a tremendous amount as president," Bogner said.
Last year, Molloy named a newly constructed residence hall -- its first -- after her.
In a 1981 interview, Fitzgerald said, "I've taught on all levels from second grade to university. I love to teach."
Fitzgerald was born in Woodside and attended Catholic schools, including Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School in Brooklyn, where some Dominican sisters taught. After graduation, she entered the order and was soon teaching in Catholic elementary and high schools on Long Island.
By 1965, she graduated from St. John's University with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and the highest grade-point average of her class, according to Molloy. She started teaching at the college in 1969 as she worked toward her doctorate in philosophy. Three years later, she was named president.
The college, which the Dominican sisters founded in 1955, underwent major changes during her tenure that included a new name -- from Molloy Catholic College for Women to Molloy College. Fitzgerald also encouraged the growth of the college's nursing program, which today is one of the largest in the U.S. with about 2,000 students.
Beyond her academic and administrative achievements, friends and colleagues recall her human touch and the way she helped people. Sister Mary Hughes, a former head of the Dominican order, said that at last year's residence hall dedication one graduate who had experienced tough times told her, "If it were not for Sister Janet, I never would have made it through college."
"She was able to make that human connection with people," said a great-niece, Sharon Kane of Long Beach, Calif. "She was dedicated to her faith 100 percent."
Fitzgerald is also survived by several nieces, nephews and cousins. A funeral Mass will be celebrated Friday at 10:30 a.m. at St. Albert's Chapel in the Motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville. Burial will take place on the grounds of the Motherhouse.