Patricia Kirwan, former first lady of the University of Maryland, dies

Patricia H. Kirwan, who was known as the first lady of the University of Maryland, died of multiple myeloma complications Oct. 3.

Patricia H. Kirwan, who was known as the first lady of the University of Maryland, died of multiple myeloma complications Wednesday at her Rockville home. She was 80 and formerly lived in Baltimore County on Old Court Road.

Born in Lexington, Ky., she was the daughter of James Harper and his wife, Anna Robinson. She was a 1956 graduate of Henry Clay High School and majored in nutrition at the University of Kentucky, where she graduated in 1960.


“The real story is that I sat right behind her in the seventh grade,” said her husband, Dr. William “Brit” Kirwan, a past president of the University of Maryland. “I was always charmed by her vivacity and beauty.”

He said that when they both went on to high school, he arranged — through the class matchmaker — to sit next to her on buses during a senior class trip to Washington and Annapolis. While they were dating other people when the trip began, by its end they were holding hands.


“She had so much energy and charm,” Dr. Kirwan said. “She was a phenomenal dancer and was elected the campus beauty queen.”

They married Aug. 27, 1960, and moved to New Jersey, where Dr. Kirwan pursued his doctorate in mathematics at Rutgers University and she taught in the state’s public school system.

They later moved to College Park when he joined the math faculty at the University of Maryland.

“She threw herself into the life of the math department,” her husband said. “I often marveled at how she touched so many people. I never heard her utter a negative thing about anybody. People enjoyed being in her company. She was empathetic, kind, non-judgmental and selfless.”

Mrs. Kirwan was also a gym teacher at the Silver Spring YMCA and a teachers’ aid in special education at Eastern Middle School, also in Silver Spring.

When her husband became president of the University of Maryland College Park in 1988, she became the campus’ first lady and entertained at the school’s functions.

“She was a phenomenal cook and hostess and combined the roles of maitre d’ and chef,” he said.

When he became president of Ohio State University in 1998, they moved to Columbus. Family members said her role in the community became more visible than it had been at College Park, where a college president is overshadowed by Washington’s political life.


“She was the consummate hostess,” said her daughter, Ann Elizabeth Horton, a Silver Spring resident. “She knew how to make an event happen.”

In 2002, she and her husband returned to Maryland when he was named Chancellor of the University System of Maryland. They lived off Old Court Road at Hidden Waters in a 1936 mansion built by Baltimore banker and attorney Jacob France, which is owned by the university system and is the chancellor’s official residence.

Her daughter said Mrs. Kirwan enjoyed collecting antiques, silver and china.

“Walking around Hidden Waters was like walking around in a museum,” she said.

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Her husband, Dr. Kirwan, said: “She was the perfect partner for me. We entertained a lot at Hidden Waters, and when she arranged one of these receptions or dinners, her graciousness was always evident.”

They resided at Hidden Waters until Dr. Kirwan stepped down as chancellor. They moved to Rockville and had a vacation home at Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland.


Mrs. Kirwan had a love of animals and owned numerous dogs throughout her life. She also rescued wildlife and abandoned and unwanted animals. She told friends she would have been a veterinarian if that major had been available when she was a student.

She was a major donor to the Hart for Animals, a facility in Garrett County. It is named in her honor.

“I have a vision of my mother, tending a nest of squirrels or mice on top of her microwave, with a heat lamp propped alongside,” her daughter said.

The family will hold a private funeral service. A memorial service celebrating Mrs. Kirwan’s life will be held at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 18 at the Memorial Chapel on the University of Maryland, College Park campus.

In addition to her husband of 58 years and daughter, survivors include a son, William E. Kirwan III of Silver Spring; a brother, Benjamin Harper of Lexington; a sister, Deborah Hallock, also of Lexington; and five grandchildren.