By Julian Routh | News Editor
In response to claims that Duquesne turned a blind eye to an ailing adjunct professor before her death on Sept. 1, Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry Rev. Daniel Walsh said the university “offered the help to get her to where she would be able to care for herself.”
Margaret Mary Vojtko was permitted to stay at the Laval House, the ministry’s formation house, for a month while her home was without a furnace, Walsh said to The Duke on Thursday. Vojtko approached Walsh in February to ask for a place to stay and moved in the same day. According to Walsh, Vojtko “said that her home had no heating, and that she would return there when it was warm.”
Vojtko stayed on the second floor of the house for over a month, Walsh said, and was provided with daily meals.
“We welcomed her,” Walsh said. “And not just as a visitor, but to come whenever she wanted to our meals. We would prepare meals for her. She could be a member of the community and not a guest.”
A new priest’s arrival to the Laval House in March required Walsh to find ways to address Vojtko’s situation, he said. Walsh, along with other Spiritans, offered to repair or replace Vojtko’s furnace. University funds were also available to assist.
“We [said we] would quietly take care of the repair or the replacement if it was needed,” Walsh said. “[Vojtko] didn’t have the resources, and we were very willing to help.”
Vojtko refused the help because she was “a very private person,” according to Walsh.
Walsh’s statements came a day after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an opinions column critical of the way Duquesne handled Vojtko’s departure. United Steelworkers lawyer Daniel Kovalik, who wrote the now-viral story, told The Duke Wednesday that the university could have done more to assist a longtime employee who couldn’t afford to make ends meet.
“They simply claim that, in lieu of a living wage and benefits, they offered her intermittent charity and prayers as a salve to her impoverishment,” Kovalik said.
Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the union, said the school should “reflect on how they treat all their employees.”
Vice President for University Advancement John Plante sent an email Thursday to all Duquesne employees addressing the Post-Gazette piece.
“Our defense is the truth. Mr. Kovalik has tried to frame this as an issue of human resources policy, but he is wrong,” Plante said. “The support provided and offered to Margaret Mary Vojtko was broad, involving the Spiritan community, student housing, EAP, campus police, facilities management, and her faculty and staff colleagues.”
Plante also said there are those in the university who think Kovalik’s story is “a reckless attempt” to exploit Vojtko’s death for self-interest, and those who have “no direct knowledge of the actual circumstances.”
“[The latter] have also expressed outrage, using social media to attack Duquesne based on their acceptance of Mr. Kovalik’s published mischaracterizations,” Plante said.
Vojtko, who died from complications of a heart attack she suffered in August, taught French courses in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures for 25 years before the school told her she was not being asked to return for the fall semester.
Family and friends said Vojtko could not afford to fix a broken furnace in her home and frequently spent nights at an Eat n’ Park. Walsh said he remembers Vojtko telling him she would sleep in a booth at the restaurant.
On one instance, Vojtko was escorted off campus after officials found her sleeping on a couch in the department. According to adjunct professor and friend Joshua Zelesnick, Vojtko did this because she would “lose energy all of the sudden” as a result of chemotherapy.
“[Vojtko] said she was doing this because she was too weak and didn’t want to miss her classes and her students,” Zelesnick said. “This was a recurring problem. She didn’t want to miss work.”
Vojtko suffered from ovarian cancer and was undergoing treatment since a recurrence last year, nephew John Vojtko said. She had just completed her first week of treatment on Aug. 16, the day she went into cardiac arrest.
After the heart attack, Vojtko was put into the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at UPMC Mercy Hospital for 12 days. According to John Vojtko, Margaret Mary was “able to breathe on her own, but never regained consciousness.” Under the advice of the physician who oversaw Margaret Mary’s care, John Vojtko transferred his aunt to hospice care at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield, where she died three days later.
Margaret Mary’s funeral was held on Sept. 7 at Epiphany Catholic Church in Uptown.