July Alumnae Spotlight, Dr. Margarita O'Byrne Curtis '69

In what ways did your Ursuline education prepare you for the work you’re doing now?  
At Ursuline I learned that there are no shortcuts to excellence or truth-seeking. Instead, both of these aspirations require a patient, deliberate, cumulative approach and the acceptance that the search never ends. As an educator, it is important to model discipline and hard work as prerequisites of superior performance, regardless of the field of study, and to remind young people that no matter how intelligent or naturally talented they may be, these gifts are not enough. A commitment to continual growth and improvement is what leads to a high level of achievement and fulfillment. When I entered Ursuline, I barely spoke English, and for a while, I thought I would not pass my courses, except Algebra, which was the only “language” I understood. The sisters did not lower the standards or the workload for me, but did something much more valuable: they helped me understand that consistent effort and perseverance would yield good results. In their wise, understated way, they also made me feel that they believed in me. At the end of 9th grade, I did pass all my courses, but more importantly, I understood that challenging goals are attained by many small, incremental steps. The blend of rigor and support I encountered at the Academy--and the belief that excellence is the byproduct of focused discipline—is what I have tried to offer my students in my career as an educator.

Please describe the most significant value you learned from Ursuline Academy.  
Serviam. I have always thought that a commitment to excellence, in whatever field we may pursue, leads to success, but it is the commitment to service that leads to fulfillment. Personal fulfillment begins with our readiness to care, not from our capacity to control. In my view, the pursuit of excellence and superior performance must be inextricably tied to moral distinction and the notion of service. As Christians, we are called to do well—not with the exclusive goal of self-advancement, but with the intent to do good—and to have a positive impact on the lives we touch, directly and indirectly. In a world where success is measured by what you own or the amount in your bank account, it is important to remind our young people to consider not what they can have, but what they can be and do for others. In the end, an inspired mind amounts to nothing without love.
Describe Ursuline in one word. Explain.  
Community. When I arrived at Ursuline, I was immediately struck by its welcoming, supportive atmosphere, by the emphasis on shared experiences and traditions, and the commitment to transcend the self for the common good. The frequent face-to-face interactions created a special bond between students and teachers, and the school often rallied together with a sense of shared purpose, and unparalleled pride in our history and our mission. As I got to know Ursuline, I found that these first impressions were not just window-dressing, but described the very soul of the school.
About Dr. Margarita O'Byrne Curtis
Born in Cali, Colombia, Dr. O’Byrne Curtis immigrated to New Orleans at age 12 with her parents and four siblings, and attended Ursuline Academy for four years, graduating in 1969. She earned undergraduate degrees at Tulane University (B.A. French) and Minnesota State University Mankato (B.S. Education), and began her teaching career at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, Mexico, following this one-year international appointment, with a three-year tenure at Metairie Park Country Day School. In 1979, she and her husband, a native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, moved to Boston, where she earned her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. A teacher at heart, Dr. Curtis won numerous accolades for her classroom work, earning the Certificate of Distinction in Teaching from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard. Her dissertation on Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós was awarded a Research Prize by the International Association of Galdosistas, and published as a book in Spain.
For twenty years (1986-2006), she served as a faculty member, department chair and Dean of Studies at Phillips Academy, Andover, where she was appointed to the Francis C. Robertson Bicentennial Instructorship, and subsequently, as the David M. Underwood Foundation Chair. During her time at Andover, Dr. Curtis earned five Kenan Research Grants, published several scholarly articles on Spanish literature, and participated in over a dozen national and international literary conferences.
In 2006, Dr. Curtis was appointed Head of School of Deerfield Academy, a coeducational boarding school in Western, Massachusetts, where she oversaw all aspects of the Academy’s operations and program, encompassing more than 500 employees and 650 students, a $50+ million annual budget, a 300+ acre campus, and a deeply engaged alumni body numbering over 10,000. Upon her retirement in June of 2019, she was awarded the Deerfield Medal, the highest honor conferred by the institution.
She has been a chair or a member of several school accreditation visiting committees, has served as the President of the Eight Schools Association (boarding schools in the Northeast), and as a trustee of School Year Abroad and Global Connections. She was recently appointed to the Rostro de Cristo Board, a Boston-based organization that offers high school and college students the opportunity to work with marginalized populations in Guayaquil, Ecuador, as a way to deepen their spiritual formation.
In March of 2020, she joyfully accepted the position of Interim President of her Alma Mater, (2020-2021). She is looking forward to reconnecting with the members of the Ursuline community, and to spending more time with her 93-year old mother and three sisters (her brother is deceased). She is joined in New Orleans by her husband, Manning, a retired cardiologist with a current practice in clinical hypnosis (Mind Heal Clinic). Drs. Curtis have two children, Heather Elizabeth, who lives in Portland, ME and Patrick Manning, who is a resident, with his wife and three young children, of Saratoga, CA.