Vojtko remembered for pride, eloquence

By Julian Routh | News Editor


UPDATE (4:56 PM September 20): The Rev. Daniel Walsh spoke to The Duke, saying Vojtko was allowed to stay at the Laval House for a month with daily meals. Read the full story here for all the updates on the university’s treatment of Margaret Mary Vojtko, including reaction to the Post-Gazette column and statements from Daniel Kovalik.


UPDATE (4:45 PM September 18): In response to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette‘s opinions column by Daniel Kovalik posted online today, Duquesne University Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry Daniel Walsh issued the following statement:

“I was incredulous after reading Daniel Kovalik’s op-ed piece about Margaret Mary Votjko. I knew Margaret Mary well. When we learned of problems with her home she was invited to live with us in the formation community at Laval House on campus, where she resided for several weeks over the past year. Over the course of Margaret Mary’s illness I, along with other Spiritan priests, visited with her regularly. In addition, the University and the Spiritan priests at Duquesne offered several other types of assistance to her.  Mr. Kovalik’s use of an unfortunate death to serve an alternative agenda is sadly exploitive, and is made worse because his description of the circumstances bears no resemblance to reality.”


An adjunct professor who taught at Duquesne for over 25 years died Sept. 1 from complications of a heart attack she suffered in August.

Margaret Mary Vojtko, 83, taught French classes in the university’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures before school officials told her she was not being asked to return for the Fall 2013 semester, friends and family said.

Vojtko suffered from ovarian cancer and was undergoing treatment since a recurrence last year, according to nephew John Vojtko. 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.

John Vojtko said he drove Margaret Mary home from Duquesne the Saturday before she suffered the heart attack.

“She was transferring her materials at her desk, her textbooks and all of her teaching materials,” Vojtko said. “We took those things to storage. Afterward, we stopped for some lunch and I took her to her home.”

In the spring, Vojtko was notified she was not going to be hired for the fall semester, adjunct professor and friend Joshua Zelesnick said.

Department chair Edith Krause declined to say why Vojtko was not asked to return, but did offer her condolences.

“I regret very much her sudden passing,” Krause said. “I have respected her dedication to her students and to the profession.”

Zelesnick said he got to know Vojtko personally during his adjunct faculty union organization efforts.

According to Zelesnick, Vojtko would sometimes sleep overnight on the couch in the department because she would “lose energy all of the sudden” as a result of chemotherapy. She was also afraid of falling on her way to the bus, which could have been “life threatening” because of the blood clots in her legs, Zelesnick said.

“[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.”

Zelesnick said Vojtko told him she was escorted off campus once after she was caught sleeping. After that, she would regularly pass the night at an Eat n’ Park and come back to Duquesne on the bus the next morning.

Over the last winter Vojtko’s furnace broke and she couldn’t afford to fix it, so she rarely stayed at home, Zelesnick said.

Vojtko, who was not married and did not have children, refused to stay at other people’s houses because she was “such a proud woman,” Zelesnick said.

Margarita Winikoff, one of Vojtko’s colleagues in the department, said Vojtko was a “very dear lady” who expressed herself in an “eloquent manner.”

“Whenever I came across Margaret, we had a very nice gentle relationship,” Winikoff said. “I respected her. I loved her and I love the memory of her.”

Margaret Mary’s funeral was held on Saturday at Epiphany Catholic Church in Uptown.


  1. I am a Duquesne alumni and had Madam Votjko as a professor freshman year. I am seriously perturbed by this story. I’m sure her siutation was brought on by a combination of factors, and the public may never get the whole story from the media, but the whole thing is disgusting. I understand Duquesne “technically” did not do anything wrong, however, the amount of money they spend on expenses that don’t matter is appalling. Every year, they would display an ice sculpture of the nativity on Academic walk that would inevitably melt due to Pittsburgh’s unpredictable weather patterns or be destroyed by drunk students after a day. I also received an email today for homecoming advertising a free mimosa brunch for the business school. It seems Duquesne will only spend money to enhance its image or towards people they think matter. Perhaps they could spend some of that cash on their educators instead of mimosa brunches and ice scultures. Duquesne needs to start paying professors decent wages and offer benefits. I will never be donating money to them nor will I return for any sort of homecoming event. I’m now an IUP alumni, where I received my master’s degree. NOT a Duquesne alumni.

  2. Where are her relatives? Nieces or nephews? How could you turn a blind eye when your great aunt had to sleep in the school sofa? It’s sad but seems there is more to this story.

  3. “Catholic schools, especially those with significant financial resources, should undertake to provide a ‘living wage’ for their lowest paid employees. And as a matter of urgency, they should take the lead in American higher education in providing just compensation for adjunct faculty. The exploitation of such folk should end on Catholic campuses.”

    — Wilson D. Miscamble, “The Corporate University,” America, 31 July 2006


  4. I am heartened by the responses of Duquesne’s faculty and students to the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko. I am an adjunct working in New Mexico where the cost of living is lower than back east, and am always amazed that adjuncts are getting paid even less than me and living off it, or better said, surviving off it. I’m glad most of you see through Daniel Walsh, who should be making a public apology instead of trying to save face. Wake up Daniel, something’s wrong here.
    Sure, Vojtko loved her job. I’m also sure there are plenty of CEOs, doctors and lawyers who love their jobs, too. All professionals deserve a professional wage.
    And no one who works until they’re 83, whether they be a professional or not, deserves to die the way Mary Margaret Vojtko did.
    This is a Catholic University? I can hardly believe it’s an American University.

  5. Seriously, people, Think! This poor woman did live for 58 years before she was hired at Duquesne. Where is her pension, her social security, her Medicare or Medicaid, FAMILY? Dig further. There is a terrible campaign going on here. If all of you are so worried about this now, where were you before? Actually Duquesne was very merciful letting her teach into her 80’s.

    Dear students: don’t fall for this. Would you let your grandmother or great aunt sleep in a restaurant or an office?

    • What makes you think she HAD a pension? Thanks to the rape of the middle class that started under Ronald Reagan, most Americans can rely on nothing but their Social Security when they grow old, and the Republicans (led by Paul Ryan) want to gut THAT.

      As for your appalling lack of compassion (and your apologia for a school that denied a TWENTY-FIVE YEAR EMPLOYEE any sort of severance, health insurance, or retirement package), may you never, ever know what it is like to be forced to work into your 80s just to keep a roof over your head.

      Shame on you.

  6. This is a horrible situation all the way around. I am left with a question after reading this and the original article about it – did she not have social security and medicare? Something doesn’t fully add up.

    • Uh…I hate to tell you this, but seniors have to pay for supplemental insurance to pick up what Medicare doesn’t. It’s not cheap, but it’s necessary.

      Also, Social Security is based on what you made the last time you worked prior to retirement age (which in this woman’s case was 65). She probably was getting around $1000 or less per month.

      Try buying food, paying for supplemental medical insurance, paying your utilities and insurance, and covering your property taxes on *that*, young man. Then maybe you’ll see that the only thing that “doesn’t fully add up” is this poor woman’s budget.

      • You are absolutely correct. I find myself in a similar situation. A $1000 per month, minus Medicare, minus supplementary, and I work 12-15 hours per week teaching at a nearby college for $15.00 per hour. Calculate the hourly rate for adjunct instructors, and they are only paid for the time in the classroom with probably about 30 minutes of prep per hour spent.

    • “did she not have social security and medicare”

      I’m sure she did. There’s a 20% copay for cancer treatment under medicare. Typical chemotherapy bills I have seen in my own family ran from $500,000 to $2,000,000 per course of treatment. So the copay will run between $100,000 and $400,000 per round of treatment. The typical situation for a Medicare beneficiary with cancer is to lose their house and all of their savings in an attempt to manage the required copays.

  7. Talk about a HYPOCRISY in all caps from Daniel Walsh. Why is Charles J. Dougherty raking in nearly $700,000 and this woman was literally allowed to live in such abject poverty? I am glad the hypocrisy is being revealed. This is just reprehensible.

  8. That “alternative agenda” warned against by “Father” Walsh used to be the church’s agenda, too. The once-proud Catholic labor movement, which fought for decent wages and working conditions for the dignity of all workers, has been subsumed by the church’s current obeisance to the economic plutocracy. While the underclass mushrooms and the middle class rapidly disappears, the American church turns most of her public energies to fighting gender and marriage equality, giving significant material support to the political party that seeks to quash unions for good. It’s not just that the church has lost its focus on serving low-income individuals — it’s now actively and willfully increasing their suffering.

  9. I urge you, beloved students, to write His Holiness Pope Francis, a man of God, and let him know what was done to this poor woman. Do not sit idly by. The least you can do is send him an email.

  10. The truth with these stories lies somewhere in the middle. Great reporting out of The Duke on this one though and to Julian Routh. Keep digging on this story.

    • I’d buy that if Vojtko’s nephew hadn’t ask Daniel Kovalik to tell his aunt’s story. Truth isn’t always in the middle.

  11. Matthew 25:31-46 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
    44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
    45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
    46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

  12. Daniel Walsh, shame on you in your appalling defense of Duquesne’s inexcusable actions, Haven’t you read the teachings of the leader of your own Church?

    “Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential. This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless.” — Letter to Prime Minister David Cameron for the G8 Meeting, June 17-18

    DIGNITY, says our Pope, through a minimum wherewithal. Duquesne took that from Margaret Mary in exploiting her for years and then finally discarding her, taking away her ability to support her most basic needs. Then you have the gall to publicly say that it was all well and good, since you threw her some crumbs at the end. Your university’s treatment of this professor, and not Mr. Kovalik’s op-ed piece, is beyond “sadly exploitative”. It is immoral and unChristian.

  13. This is why I left the Catholic Church. Nothing but hypocrisy and greed and its top layers. Anyone with a degree from Duequesne should be ashamed of their alma mater.

  14. My office mate died.. He was an adjunct who was dropped from very expensive College heath insurance because he could not keep up payments. He could not get medication he needed. He killed himself.

  15. Wow. The Deacon’s “correction” only makes the story even worse. Why do you pay your adjunct faculty so poorly, yet expect them to serve you full time? Offering a dying employee weeks of housing and some prayers is not something to congratulate yourself over. Shameful, truly. The other commenters are right on.

  16. Director of Campus Ministry Daniel Walsh:

    Duquesne paid Vojtko less than someone working at McDonald’s while charging her students $32,000 per year in tuition. You’ve got to be kidding me if you seriously think that Duquesne’s thrusting someone into poverty is ok as long as the priests offer her a room now and then. Shame on you. Loosen your collar and let some oxygen into that brain of yours.

  17. I’m incredulous that Daniel Walsh would be so quick to defend Duquesne in this situation. Even if the University and the Spiritan priests at the school “offered several other types of assistance” to Prof. Vojtko, the bottom line is that Duquesne had no problem with this woman being paid low wages with no job security or benefits despite her years of service to the school, and they swiftly fired her when she was no longer useful in their eyes.

    Disgraceful. Enjoy your warm bed tonight, good Catholics.

  18. If she was that respected, perhaps the university could have respected her a little more by, oh, some sort of benefits, a living wage…

  19. It would be nice to reflect on what it means that Margaret Mary died in abject poverty (she was buried in an unadorned cardboard casket), notwithstanding having taught at Duquesne for a quarter century and having no dependents.

    • I am all for a cardboard casket – why should the funeral industry profit from such an event? A sheet or body bag would be ok, too. (See “The American Way of Death” by Jessica Mitford, published around 1963.) Think of all the space and resources those fancy graves and cemeteries are wasting. Does anyone really think these dead people will stand up and be “raptured”? “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”? Enough already.

  20. Duquesne students:

    There’s more to this story: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/opinion/perspectives/death-of-an-adjunct-703773/

    How much do you pay in tuition? When an adjunct teaching one of your courses is paid $3000-$3500 to instruct your course, how much of your tuition money do you think goes towards your instruction? Depending on how many students are in the class, I’d venture it’s about $100 of the $32,000 that you pay Duquesne in tuition every year.

    When you allow your university to offer you an adjunct professor, you are being ripped off and you, someone at a supposedly Catholic university, are contributing to someone’s impoverishment.

    Your university is tuition-driven, which means that the administrators will listen to you–the students–who fork over the tuition money. Demand that Duquesne use your money to pay your professors a living wage, stop allowing yourselves to be charged tens of thousands when your instruction costs maybe a few hundred, and do your part to make sure that none of your instructors is buried in a cardboard box ever again.

    Finally, if you think Duquesne is a Catholic university in the true sense of the word Catholic, you’re delusional. No follower of the Christ would let Vojtko live and die like this, and any university that would is in no way Catholic.

    • There’s “more to the story” until you remember that the fellow who wrote that article that you link to is a lawyer for the organization that is attempting to unionize the adjunct faculty. The very definition of bias. This man is exploiting the death of Ms. Vojtko for his own purposes.

      • No, it is NOT a lawyer who is trying to unionize the adjuncts. It is the *adjuncts* who organized themselves, researched options and approached the USW. Ask yourself this: what is the USW gaining from picking up these adjuncts at one school? The union dues from these adjuntcs on poverty wages are peanuts, let’s face it.

        Now, what is Duquesne gaining by keeping the wages of their adjuncts (who make up most of the faculty) at poverty levels and not offering them healthcare, severance, or any other type of benefit, all the while blocking their right to organize and speak up for themselves? Duquesne’s got every reason to try to spin this their way, and it’s good old’ greed.$$$

      • Just exactly what would the lawyer’s “own purposes” be? Exactly how does he benefit from helping the faculty organize into a union?

        • He’s part of a sinister conspiracy set up by the Illuminati to disestablish the university from its Catholic roots and lead it into Satanism and providing its employees with health insurance.

          Honestly, didn’t you read the memo from President Doughtrey?

      • Given Ms. Vojtko’s exploitation, it certainly seems there is a definite need for a union. If parents and students are paying ever increasing tuition, and are getting nontenured professors and TAs, something needs to change, regardless of who wrote what. That’s such a dodge.

      • Of course, he’s “exploiting” this story for a purpose. The purpose is an attempt to give workers some power. Ooooh, that’s bad. The football coach at the state university here makes $2,000,000 a year. The college president makes $672,000. A PhD adjunct makes $3500 per class, and most only teach one class per semester; few teach more than one.

      • Of course that could be true. And it could also be true of the heroine herself – why not make a striking exit if one can do it and cannot do much else? Not that I’d blame her.

  21. “She said that all she wanted was money to pay her medical bills because Duquesne, which never paid her much to begin with, gave her nothing on her way out the door.

    Duquesne knew all about Margaret Mary’s plight, for I apprised them of it in two letters. I never received a reply, and Margaret Mary was forced to die saddened, penniless and on the verge of being turned over to Orphan’s Court.”

    Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/opinion/perspectives/death-of-an-adjunct-703773/#ixzz2fG4FtY26

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