USD's First Graduate, Art/Design Pioneer: Therese Truitt Whitcomb '53, Passes Away

Thursday, August 16, 2018post has photos

Professor Emerita of Art Therese Truitt Whitcomb, the first and only graduate of the San Diego College for Women in 1953 and whose connection spanned every decade of the University of San Diego’s existence in many pivotal roles, has died. Whitcomb passed away Saturday, August 11, in La Jolla. She was 87.

Whitcomb, born in Evanston, Ill., arrived in San Diego as a transfer student when the College for Women opened in February 1952 and completed her bachelor's degree in art in one year. She moved to New York City to continue her studies at the Art Students League. A mother of six children, she began teaching in 1961 as a part-time art instructor at the College for Women. She completed a Master’s in Art History at San Diego State University in 1968 and became a full-time professor in the Department of Fine Arts in 1969. Whitcomb, who founded USD’s art history program, Founders Gallery and was its inaugural director of institutional design, received an honorary Doctor of Letters by then USD President Mary E. Lyons at USD’s 2015 graduation.

"There are few people in the history of our university who have had such an impact on shaping its distinct and distinguished character," Lyons said.

Therese Truitt Whitcomb '53: 1930-2018

Her University 'Home'

The University of San Diego campus was a treasured space for Whitcomb. Her love for USD, from her days as a student, a connection to the Religious of the Sacred Heart alumni and her multi-faceted, tireless work to uphold Mother Hill's vision, and her work beyond USD, which includes countless volunteer hours at the Catholic Worker House and San Diego's chapter of Catholic Charities, set an example for all to follow.

"It was her home and our home," said Hope Hanafin, one of Whitcomb's six adult children, of her mom and their family’s strong USD connection. "She met her greatest professional challenges and received her greatest rewards there. But what sticks out to me is that she received letters from former students twenty, thirty and forty years ago, thanking her and telling her what they were doing. I think she opened our eyes to the possibilities and the importance of service and caring for others."

Said USD President James T. Harris III, DEd: "The loss of Terry Whitcomb will be felt by generations of alumni, friends, and former colleagues at the University of San Diego for years to come. Her reverence for our founders, Mother Rosalie Hill and Bishop Charles Francis Buddy, combined with her deep appreciation of art history and her own exquisite aesthetic taste, are forever memorialized in beautiful design elements found at every turn on our campus. We are deeply grateful for the legacy of artistry and refinement that her devotion to USD has created."

Whitcomb chaired the Department of Fine Arts, taught in the College of Arts and Sciences for 35 and established Founders Gallery in 1972. Her role as director of University Design gave her the responsibility for setting the standards and preserving the beauty and consistent Spanish Renaissance architecture of the USD campus. The position came about after she met with USD’s inaugural President, Dr. Author "Art" Hughes following his 1971 arrival.

She told Hughes of her concern for the appearance of the university’s interiors. Soon after meeting, President Hughes incorporated into USD’s master plan Mother Hill's vision that the campus' design be both consistent and beautiful. Whitcomb was appointed as USD’s first Curator of Collection/Director of University Design.

"Terry embodied the mission and core values of this university," said Mary Whelan, a USD alumna, close friend and mentee of Whitcomb. Whelan currently serves as USD's third director of university design. "She embraced Mother Hill's statement on beauty, goodness and truth. The fact USD was named [The Princeton Review’s] Most Beautiful Campus this past year is a testament to all of the incredible hard work she endured to set the path to continue Mother Hill's vision."

Personally, Whelan’s connection to Whitcomb started at birth as Whelan’s mother was a 1960s student of Whitcomb's. Whelan is grateful for her lifelong relationship.

"My entire career has been influenced by Terry," she said. "As an art major, I was one of many students Terry taught and mentored. Besides taking her art history courses, I enrolled in her exhibition design class that focused on the design and installation of Founders Gallery. I became her understudy and, in 1988, she handed me the baton to teach the gallery course, which I did until the early 2000s.”

Whelan received other job opportunities via Whitcomb’s recommendations, such as with the Mission San Diego de Alcala and Mission San Luis Rey de Franco. Later, when Whitcomb's initial University Design successor, Ruth Stanton, neared retirement, Whitcomb's influence helped Whelan get the University Design and Galleries director post.

"As the university has grown, I look at what Terry started and when a challenging day comes around, I often find myself asking, 'What Would Therese Truitt Whitcomb Do (WWTTWD)?'

Upon Lyons’ 2003 arrival as USD President she spent time in the university's archives to learn more about its origins. "It didn't take long to realize the tremendous impact that Terry had on the development of the campus and the important integration of its design with its educational philosophy,” she said. “Terry was tireless well beyond her retirement years in offering her wisdom and hard work to ensure that the relationship among beauty, goodness and truth, was evident beyond the classroom."

Passionate Presence 

News of Whitcomb's passing has been difficult for many. John Trifiletti first met Whitcomb, his freshman advisor, 44 years ago. Their friendship grew and strengthened through the years, including when Trifiletti became a USD colleague, serving as the university’s alumni director.

"Terry left an indelible imprint on the beauty of the university," Trifiletti said. "She had a long history as a student, alumna, faculty member and was a person of deep, deep faith. She touched the lives of countless students and was passionate about the mission of the university. Her influence on the design of the university is in virtually every campus building. She was completely committed to the advancement of the school."

Awards Whitcomb received at USD attest to her overall excellence. She received the Outstanding Teacher Award (1977), the Lowell Davies Award for Faculty Achievement (1985), Alumni Honors’ Bishop Charles Francis Buddy Award (1989), Alcalá Award (1995), Golden Torero (2013), San Diego Mortar Board Alumni Award (2015). There is an annual endowed scholarship, Therese Whitcomb '53 Scholarship, which is awarded to deserving students through the USD Alumni Association.

"I so enjoyed the times I was able to visit with her," Senior Director of Alumni Relations Charles Bass said. "I was always impressed by her knowledge of university history, people and her love for all things USD."

Art History Professor Sally Yard and Derrick Cartwright, associate professor and director of University Galleries, were both hired by Whitcomb.

"Terry was the most splendid mentor and friend I could have imagined," Yard said. "She was dauntless and bold, generous and kind, elegant and strong. She was a formidable advocate who made my arrival and early years at USD a delight."

Cartwright, hired in 1993, left in 1998 to pursue other opportunities, but returned to USD in 2012. Living near Whitcomb’s La Jolla neighborhood, he frequently enjoyed meals and conversations with her there. He turned to Whitcomb and her vast expertise for key roles in different organizations and always enjoyed seeing her at a University Galleries exhibition.

"Terry is one of the most important mentors in my career,” he said. “There are many people who owe their career to her. Much of what we have here would not exist without the sacrifices she made."

Great Work Beyond USD

Whitcomb served on the board of many art history and community organizations. She guided restoration of the San Luis Rey Mission, Sacred Heart Church in Coronado, the San Diego Mission Basilica, and other historic buildings. She served as a trustee of the San Diego Museum of Art and the Timken Museum, and as a chair for the San Diego County Committee of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in California.

"The last ten years of her life, she received great joy in cooking for the homeless," Hope Hanafin said. "She loved being around them. She helped put one man through cooking school and went to the graduation. She was so proud of him."

Hanafin said her mother's approach to life can be summed up this way: "Find out what you love and then do it for other people. For her, the wonder of USD was that she joined the institution when it was still growing. They let her experiment and created the space for her to do it." 

Whitcomb is survived by six children, Hope Hanafin (husband Robert Zuber, PhD) of Venice, Calif., USD alumnus Paul Hanafin (Frances) of McLean, Va., Hilary Hanafin, PhD, (Steven Smith) of Los Angeles, Calif., Jim Hanafin (Kathleen) of Camarillo, Calif., Heather Oles (Thomas) of Windermere, Fla., and USD alumna Holly Curran of Lake Oswego, Ore., and 13 grandchildren, Christopher, Haley, Patrick, Timothy, Connor, Bridget, Riley, Maeve, Grace, Joe, Cavan, Olivia and Kathryn. Whitcomb’s husband, William Jacob Whitcomb, preceded her in death.

A celebration of life and mass of Christian burial will take place Tuesday, Aug. 28 at 10:30 a.m. in The Immaculata Catholic Church on the USD campus. Reception to follow. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to Catholic Charities (Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego, P.O. Box 121831, San Diego, Calif., 92112) and the Mingei International Museum (1439 El Prado, San Diego, Calif., 92101). Notes of condolences can be sent to University of San Diego, 5998 Alcala Park Way, c/o Office of University Design, Room 274, San Diego, CA 92110.

— Ryan T. Blystone

Photos courtesy of USD Archives, San Diego Historical Society - Union Tribune Collection, USD Planned Giving Office, University Design.

Therese Truitt Whitcomb '53 - Bishop Buddy at 1954 graduationTherese Truitt (Hanafin) Whitcomb, the first and only San Diego College of Women graduate in 1953, stands with a few 1954 grads and Bishop Charles Frances Buddy during a June 1954 ceremony.


USD News Center
(619) 260-4681

College of Arts and Sciences

Contact Us Email

Phone: (619) 260-4600
Fax: (619) 260-4162

Visit Campus Map

Founders Hall
5998 Alcalá Park
San Diego, CA 92110