Dr. Bren Adair Ortega-Murphy, a retired professor of women’s studies and gender studies, is remembered by friends and family as someone who had a warm presence. Bren loved children’s books and The New Yorker. She was an avid feminist and would open her home to someone in need.
“When you met her she paid full attention to you, like you were the only person in the world right at that time,” Susan Ross, a long-time colleague of Bren and retired professor said.
Bren died April 26 at the age of 71 surrounded by loved ones after a fall on the stairs left her injured, according to Chris Murphy, her husband and faculty chaplain at Loyola.
Bren was born in Beaumont, Texas, and raised in Houston. She came to the Chicago area to attend college at Northwestern University, where she earned her undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees.
Bren and Chris first met in the fall of 1979 when he was a student at Niles College Seminary, where Bren taught from 1978-1983. Chris had her as a teacher his junior year. Their relationship changed after they were cast to play romantic opposites in the school’s production of the play “Wild Oats,” according to Chris.
Because of their roles, they spent a lot of time together — Chris said Bren was there for him as he dealt with the terminal illness of a friend.
“She was able to kind of be very present and tender to me, because I was trying to help my friend and his path towards his death,” Chris said. “So a combination of those things, and our love of the arts and music and our faith kind of all blended together there and we fell in love on stage.”
They were married for 36 years and had two children together, Lauri and Connor.
Chris described his late wife as compassionate and brilliant. He said Bren was articulate and able to speak with both passion and clarity. Chris also described a philosophy Bren believed which extended to every part of her life.
“I think it’s Aristotle or somebody, one of the philosophers, but it’s the appreciation of the good, the true and the beautiful,” Chris said. “She was able to extend that, teach that and reflect that both in our home and in the years that she taught.”
Bren worked at Loyola for 36 years in both the School of Communication and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, retiring in 2020. During that time she served as chair of the communication department, associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, chair of Faculty Council and director of Women’s Studies, according to an email sent to the Loyola community. In 1996 she earned the Sujack Award for teaching excellence.
Bren was the type of person to open her home to someone in need. Ross said at various times she had students living with her who had fallen on hard times. One student, an Iraqi refugee on scholarship at Loyola, stood out to Chris.
“She was a student who was college ready, but was living in Iraq at the time of the second Iraq War,” Chris said. “Loyola gave free tuition, but there was a core group of us that were then on for her, housing and clothing and food allowance, etc. So for her first two years she lived with us in our home.”
It wasn’t just Loyola students either. Chris said in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, they took in students from Loyola University New Orleans, allowing those students to continue their studies in spite of the hurricane.
Bren was passionate about children’s books and would read to her kids, nieces and nephews from a wall of children’s books in her home. She was the kind of aunt that would always send you a book for the holidays, Chris said.
Among her favorites were the Moomins, a Finnish children’s series created in the mid-1940s. Betsy Hemenway, director of women’s studies, recalled that when she and Bren were in Finland together, they saw a Moomins display as they were getting out of the airport. When Hemenway admitted she didn’t know what the Moomins were, Bren spent a great deal of time educating her.
“That was like, part of her mission while we were in Finland,” Hemenway said. “We had to see all the Moomin stuff, like there’s a Moomin store, all these Moomin things, she had to tell me about the books; it’s endless. I was just so amazed at this deep knowledge she had of children’s books.”
Her love of children’s books wasn’t just limited to the home, though. Hemenway said Bren taught a service learning course focused on children’s books where students would volunteer at a local community agency and create children’s books that were based on the stories of the kids they were working with.
Hemenway said Bren believed in the importance of children’s literature and made it a goal to represent the experiences of underrepresented groups using the medium.
“In African American communities and other underrepresented communities, there aren’t enough children’s books that talk about their experiences,” Hemenway said. “It’s happening more now but for a long time, those books didn’t exist. And so that was part of her mission as an educator, and as a community member.”
Bren, who Ross described as a “Catholic feminist,” was devoted to women’s issues. She focused on language and rhetoric, working in the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender — which looked at language and communication through the context of how it related to women’s issues.
“She was very aware of how language, symbols, in many ways could be weaponized against women, but also how women could kind of take control,” Ross said. “She was very interested, very concerned about inclusive language.”
Of particular concern to Bren was the role of nuns and religious sisters and how society depicted them, Chris said. He said she was passionate about the topic and was focused on their contribution to nursing and education. While at first this passion started as a research paper, Chris said, it culminated in her directing the 2011 documentary, “A Question of Habit”
Bren loved The New Yorker Magazine and would post cartoons from the magazine on the door of her office, particularly if they were related to feminism or women’s issues, Hemenway said. She even wallpapered a room in her house with New Yorker covers, Ross said.
When it came time for holidays, Bren wouldn’t disappoint. She spent a great deal of time decorating, creating a warm and welcoming environment in their home, according to Ross.
“She thought it was important that people have a home and or a place when they were invited into our home that offered comfort and beauty,” Chris said. “So she was key in terms of having people understand the seasons and the holidays, and having them feel warmly embraced.”
One Christmas tree wasn’t enough for Bren — she put up two every year, one decorated to perfection and the other designed by her kids. Even after the children grew up, she kept the two tree tradition alive, according to Chris.
Services for Bren were held May 3. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that those who wish to pay respect to Bren donate to Josephinum Academy — an all-girls Catholic school in Chicago — and Bookwallah, a charity that provides children’s books to orphans in India.