May 25, 2021
Longtime UChicago administrator remembered as inspirational figure, paved way for women leaders
Sheila Hohmann, a revered scientific business administrator who completed 42 years of service at the University of Chicago, died surrounded by family in May 2021. She was 74 years old.
Remembered by friends and family as an inspirational figure who took to responsibilities with enthusiasm, she rose to become the financial expert for the Division and the first woman Associate Dean of the Physical Sciences. Honing a sharp business acumen and a talent for managing complex research and planning efforts, she devoted herself to promoting the University to a world-class destination for scientific research.
Colleagues recalled her as a kind ally with unparalleled instincts, grit, and deep institutional knowledge. They spoke of her as the ‘backbone of the leadership,’ revered for her feisty spirit and no-barriers mentality.
“Sheila had, I would say, a no-nonsense leadership style and a never-surrender work ethic,” said Michael Grosse, Senior Associate Dean. “Her deep understanding of the Division and the University proved critical on many, many occasions. For example, she was an integral part of the planning to find Enrico Fermi Institute a new home, which is now the Michelson Center for Physics.”
Hohmann rapidly rose from her start, in 1974, as the administrative assistant for the Enrico Fermi Institute (EFI) business office to the leadership of the Physical Sciences Division, retiring as Associate Dean of Business Affairs.
Christopher Leather was a young graphic designer when Hohmann brought him on to launch PSD Graphics Arts. “Sheila is a really inspirational figure in terms of women working up to a position of power at a time when it wasn’t too common,” he said. “She was an unassuming powerhouse that did as much as anyone at her time in shaping the Division.”
When she retired, in 2016, those she championed over the years gathered to celebrate her success. They presented her with a collection of letters saved in her personnel file and from colleagues wishing her well.
As the administrator of high-level grants, she made the research efforts of Enrico Fermi Institute run smoothly for decades. Touching on her admired blend of toughness and kindness, Emil Martinec, former director of EFI, wrote to her, “You had our trust to get things done with characteristic efficiency, or to deliver a reality check when needed.”
Once she was promoted to the PSD Dean’s Office, her involvement in strategic planning would have a lasting impact on the University. Her leadership helped guide the establishment of the William Eckhardt Research Center and the renovation of the Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research, now the Michelson Center for Physics. Peter O. Vandervoort, the Dean of the Physical Sciences Division in 1995, mentioned her efforts to establish the Bloch Fund and the Local Business Center, a central grants and payroll hub. “I continue to be impressed by your attention to development and your skill in learning about that mysterious subject,” he said.
Many faculty members marvelled at how she enabled them to do their research, saving them time and cutting red tape. “I don't recall how many near disasters happened, and how often I did not really need to know the details, because you had resolved the situation already!” wrote Prof. Dietrich Muller of the Department of Physics.
Former Dean of the Physical Sciences Division Robert A. Fefferman wrote in his congratulatory letter: “If I were allowed to create a person through my imagination who would be the ideal member of the PSD Dean’s team I am extremely serious when I say that I could not improve on you. Your cheerfulness, dedication, exceptional work ability, intelligence and creativity and deep understanding and appreciation for the Division made all the difference to the PSD, the University, and most certainly to me. We all owe you so much gratitude!!”
After retirement, she and her family remained involved in the University by financially supporting a bridge program to increase the pool of women and minority students.
Beyond her value as an administrator, Hohmann will live on as a cherished friend and mentor to many, especially the women on staff with her. When she hired Jolene Hanchar, then a student project assistant and now the department administrator for the Department of the Geophysical Sciences, the two formed a bond that lasted twenty years.
“Sheila was truly one-of-a-kind; some might even say a force. There was the—what some might consider intimidating—no-nonsense business side of Sheila, impressive in its own right, but there was also the sweet, caretaking, and motherly side. I was fortunate enough to know both,” she said.
Longtime mentee and friend Shadla Cycholl recalled she had a ‘great presence and the best laugh.’
And Nita Yack, manager of the Department of Computer Science and friend of thirty years, recalled her as a funny and kind friend who made the office a better place to work:
“She was truly an incredible person. We spent countless hours doing The New York Times crossword puzzles where she demonstrated how knowledgeable she was. The information that she knew at the tip of her tongue was amazing and I learned so much from her.
“When I'm in difficult situations, I always try to think, What would Sheila do?, and often a door opens.”
A native of Chicago, born in 1946, Hohmann was raised on the Near North Side. She graduated from Loyola University with a bachelor’s of arts in 1968. She and her family were longtime residents of Park Ridge, Illinois.
She is survived by Bob, her husband of 46 years, and her daughter, Serena. A celebration of life is planned for late August.