Lois O'Brien-Cronin, the former dean of students at Villa Julie College who later worked with an academic and career counseling program for women at the Community College of Baltimore County's Essex campus, died of a stroke Thursday at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.
The longtime Mays Chapel resident was 84.
"She was one tough broad, but she had a great sense of humor. She was just a hoot," said Paula K. Minsk, who was director of education at the Stratford School of Business in the 1990s, where Mrs. O'Brien-Cronin had also worked.
"Lois was tough with the students, but she was fair and compassionate," said Ms. Minsk. "She had a deep faith and lived her faith in both her personal and professional life."
The daughter of Thomas Southall, a chauffeur, and Susan Frances Burke Southall, a homemaker, Mary Lois Southall was born in New York City and raised in Sunnyside Gardens, N.Y.
She was a 1947 graduate of Garden Country Day School and earned a bachelor's degree in business education from the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., in 1951.
One week after her college graduation, she married John E. O'Brien Sr., an insurance executive who later became an ambassador for the Maryland Department of Economic Development, family members said.
When her husband was appointed chief underwriter for Monumental Life Insurance Co. in Baltimore in 1960, the couple settled in Towson.
In the early years of her marriage, she taught evenings in business schools. When she began having her six children, she became a full-time homemaker.
When her children were grown, Mrs. O'Brien-Cronin went to what is now Towson University, where she earned a master's degree in education and counseling in 1971.
In 1970, she went to work at Villa Julie, now Stevenson University, as a part-time medical secretarial instructor. She later established and directed the development of student services as dean of students.
Mrs. O'Brien-Cronin was hired in 1980 to make the Stratford School of Business in Towson into a profitable educational institution. During her tenure, she established two divisions of the school in Montgomery County.
"She may have had a tough exterior, but she cared so much for the students. She got involved with each and every student and their personal struggles," said Ms. Minsk.
"When a girl's parents were killed in a horrible automobile accident, she counseled the girl and made sure she had a shoulder to cry on. And she wanted the other students to keep her in their hearts and prayers," she said.
When her husband became ill, she left Stratford in 1990. Mr. O'Brien died in 1991.
She returned to work in 1994 at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex, where she worked in the college's Turning Point Program, an academic and career counseling program for women who are returning to the workforce.
She retired in 1999 but remained active in the community. She was a volunteer coordinator at the Baltimore County Detention Center and was a crisis interviewer at United Churches Assistance Center.
She established and facilitated bereavement groups at the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Towson. She was active with the American Red Cross in Towson and counseled homeless men at Christopher Place.
In addition to her efforts at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, she was actively involved with the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley and the Carmelite Monastery in Towson.
"Anchored by her strong faith in Catholicism and sometimes frustrated by actions and inactions of the church and government on all levels, she was a strong advocate for equal rights, women's issues and respect for others regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation," said a daughter, Caity Lovett of Bel Air.
Mrs. O'Brien-Cronin was a world traveler and enjoyed vacationing in Ocean City.
She was a patron and regularly attended performances of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Center Stage. She also liked to go to New York to attend Broadway shows.
In 1996, she married Donald Cronin, an insurance salesman, who died the next year.
A funeral Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Carmelite Monastery, 1318 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. O'Brien-Cronin is survived by three sons, John E. O'Brien Jr. of Lutherville, Bart F. O'Brien of Phoenix, Baltimore County, and Gregory A. O'Brien of Arvada, Colo.; two other daughters, Michele Sullivan of Sunnyside, N.Y., and Julie Thompson of Jupiter, Fla.; two stepsons, Ray Cronin of Riderwood and Michael Cronin of Towson; two stepdaughters, Christine Manning and Liz Dippenworth, both of Towson; and nine grandchildren.