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June 23, 2022

Former MSU first lady Joanne McPherson remembered for her legacy of caring at university

Joanne and Peter McPherson. Photo courtesy University Advancement.
Joanne and Peter McPherson. Photo courtesy University Advancement.

Joanne Marie McPherson, 75, who as first lady of Michigan State University founded Safe Place, the first shelter at a university to provide support for victims of domestic violence and stalking, died today at her home surrounded by her family.

Joanne’s husband, Peter McPherson, was MSU’s 19th president, serving from 1993 to 2005.

“Joanne was a remarkable woman who loved this university very deeply,” said current MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. “She and Peter both welcomed and supported me when I came to MSU, and she continued to show her support of the university through a lifelong commitment and generous giving over the years. On behalf of the Spartan community, our condolences and thoughts are with the McPherson family.”

Joanne McPherson had not yet officially arrived on MSU’s campus when she was inspired to take action that would have a life-changing impact on thousands of Spartans and their families.

Being driven from the Lansing airport to Cowles House by a friendly MSU police officer, she took the opportunity to learn more about what might be needed to improve the lives of MSU students. Something he said struck her: There was not a safe place on or near campus for students experiencing domestic violence to go.

Starting from that summer night in 1993, McPherson would spend the better part of the next year working diligently to change that. Thanks to her leadership, MSU Safe Place became the first university-based shelter and support program where students, staff, faculty and their partners experiencing abusive relationships or stalking can find refuge and support. The program offers temporary shelter for survivors and their children, as well as advocacy, support and counseling services while working to end stalking and interpersonal violence through public awareness, systemic change efforts and community education.

In 2020, the McPhersons made a $50,000 challenge gift to create an endowment to support MSU Safe Place to commemorate its 25th anniversary. The McPhersons are recognized in the prestigious Snyder Donor Society ($100,000+ in total lifetime donations) for their lifetime contributions to MSU.

“Joanne is the reason we have a relationship violence and stalking shelter and support program on our campus today,” said MSU Safe Place Director Holly Rosen. “I have always valued her compassion and commitment to meet the needs of our campus community and her ability to bring together donors and campus partners to create the program that exists today. She will be greatly missed! My heart goes out to her family and to all the lives she has touched.”

Joanne McPherson was awarded the Honorary Alumni Award from the MSU Alumni Association and appointed to the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission in the late 1990s.

Others remember her for her involvement in alumni groups, hosting hundreds of events at Cowles House and the dedicated team approach she had with her husband, Peter, to advocate for MSU’s progress. She is credited with revitalizing MSU’s homecoming events, including the parade and creating a selection process for the homecoming court that emphasized student achievement.

“Joanne traveled the country with our team to engage with alumni chapters all across the U.S.,” said Charles Webb, director of alumni during the McPhersons’ time at MSU. “She was deeply passionate about her family and her Spartan family. She was a very caring and generous person.”

Joanne McPherson was born Oct. 22, 1946, in Washington, D.C. She attended the University of Maryland, College Park. She is survived by her husband, Peter, by her and Peter’s children, Susan McPherson Shae and Marc Bielawski; Bruce McPherson and Michael Kircher; and seven grandchildren.

“Joanne’s contributions to MSU will not be forgotten,” said MSU Board of Trustees Chairperson Dianne Byrum. “Her work advocating for domestic abuse survivors and needed resources showed tremendous leadership, and we can’t thank her and Peter enough for their ongoing support of this great university.”

Visitation will take place from 6 to 8 p.m., June 30 at the Roth-Gurst Funeral Home, 305 Hudson St. NE, Lowell, Michigan. The funeral service will be held at 2 p.m., July 1 at Vergennes United Methodist Church outside of Lowell, at 10411 Bailey Dr. NE.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations to be made to MSU Safe Place:

MSU Safe Place
Attn: Holly Rosen, Director
MSU Safe Place – Mail Processing
166 Service Rd., Room 113A
East Lansing, MI 48824
(Please make checks out to Michigan State University and note MSU Safe Place in the check memo line.)

By: Emily Guerrant

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