In memoriam

Catherine Pierre, beloved longtime leader in JHU communications, dies at 53

Colleagues remember Pierre as an extraordinary writer, editor, mentor, and friend

Catherine Pierre, director of communications for the Johns Hopkins SNF Agora Institute and longtime communications professional within the university and several Baltimore institutions, died Oct. 27 at her home in Butchers Hill, Baltimore. She was 53.

Widely remembered as both wise and smart; devoted to her family, work, colleagues, and friends; and a fierce defender and loving supporter of the people in her life, Pierre set high standards of integrity, vision, and purpose through her unswerving example.

Catherine Pierre

Image caption: Catherine Pierre

"Catherine was an extraordinary colleague, friend, and leader," said Hahrie Han, inaugural director of SNF Agora and professor in the Department of Political Science. "She played a pivotal role in shaping the SNF Agora Institute from its earliest days, not only with her professional acumen, but also with her spirit. She brought joy, an irreverent humor, and a capacious humanity to our community that we will all miss deeply. The institute simply would not be what it is without her, and we hope to be able to honor her tremendous legacy with our ongoing work."

Since joining SNF Agora in 2019, Pierre was instrumental in all of the institute's public-facing work, including co-creating its signature conferences in Greece; local programs including the annual Elijah E. Cummings Democracy and Freedom Festival; and a series of case studies designed to help practitioners deepen skills, develop insights about strategic choices and dilemmas, and collaborate more effectively.

"What made Catherine so special as a colleague was that she combined both extraordinary talent with extraordinary empathy," said Stephen Ruckman, managing director of SNF Agora. "She saw each of us as full people first, and colleagues second. Because of that, she helped us to not only do well but to be well, often encouraging us to embrace our fuller purpose, at work and in life."

Ruckman said Pierre always thought about the institute's role in the city, and made sure its work served the wider community, not just Hopkins. She also made sure her Hopkins colleagues thought about their wider role, too.

"Catherine helped us keep things in perspective through wisdom she delivered with warmth and laughter," Ruckman added. "Especially in the university context, people can get wrapped up in their professional identity, and she always found ways to help people shake that off and remember their human identity. She gave recommendations about where to go in Baltimore for family celebrations as often as she offered advice on where an em dash goes, which she also had strong views about. She was principled in every domain but able to laugh when people took themselves too seriously."

Pierre was universally admired and respected. A rock to the many people in her orbit, she was that trusted friend who always had a new and constructive perspective to share with those facing choices or decisions, one steeped in her values and canted toward personal and professional growth. Ever ready to discuss work, life, or the world, she wanted the people she cared about to be happy and often helped them discover their next move.

"There was a time when Catherine worked for me and a time when I worked for Catherine. Each was an absolute pleasure," said Dennis O'Shea, who retired after 28 years in various communications roles at Hopkins. "She was incredibly thoughtful, in both senses of the word. A rock in tough times. A joy in good times. Always creative. Always fun. Always funny. Always great at whatever she did.

"How many editors are equally good working with words and working with people? Catherine was that. Not just a writer and editor, but also a leader, a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. Everyone who worked for her or worked with her thought of her as a friend. And she always was."

Before joining SNF Agora, Pierre arrived at Hopkins in 2003 as associate editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, becoming its editor in 2007. She then served as editorial director of the university's central communications office, interim vice president for communications, director of communications, and senior director of integrated marketing.

At the magazine, part of her abundant legacy lives on in a question the staff often ask one another when making day-to-day decisions: What would Catherine do? Greg Rienzi, the magazine's current editor, said he can hear her asking, "Is there a fun story in there? Lighten it up, Greg."

"My respect for her as a colleague, boss, and person is unparalleled," Rienzi added. "She was a true professional but also so human, and cared about your life outside of work. She always pushed you. I owe where I am today to her."

Sue DePasquale, independent editorial consultant and former editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, hired Pierre as associate editor in 2003, shortly before DePasquale left for maternity leave. "I was nervous about leaving my work 'baby' to be home with my real-life baby—but it quickly became clear that I needn't have worried. Catherine stepped up to the challenge beautifully, quickly displaying the editorial insight, wise leadership, and professionalism that would come to define her career at Johns Hopkins," DePasquale said.

"We went on to work together for several great years. In addition to being an extremely talented writer and editor, Catherine was just plain fun to be around. She was upbeat, with a smart sense of humor, and could always be counted on to lighten a stressful moment with a funny quip or a wry observation. Catherine made our work home a much, much richer place and I will always treasure the time we shared with her."

Pam Li, graphic designer for university communications, also worked with Pierre at the magazine. "The thing about Catherine, she was like the sun: warm, direct, and nurturing—that was her nature," Li said. "You could chart a course by the steadiness of her vision, and as art director for Johns Hopkins Magazine and the Johns Hopkins Health Review, I did just that. Her editorial vision was wise and true and all-encompassing. She inspired and mentored without even knowing she was doing so.

"On a personal level, she was funny and so approachable. She had the best laugh. We talked about kids and cookies and knitting; coffee and going to the dentist; whether whole-milk yogurt is better for you than low-fat; yoga and pianos. So many little things that make up memories, and they are never enough. You always think there will be time to catch up; you always think the sun will come out tomorrow."

Before joining Hopkins, Pierre served as copy chief, then arts editor, and then associate editor at Baltimore magazine, and then manager of public relations at The Walters Art Museum.

Pierre earned a bachelor's degree in English at the University of Maryland College Park in 1994 and a master's in English at Indiana University Bloomington in 1996. She served on the boards of Young Audiences of Maryland/Arts for Learning and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.

A service will be held at Mason Hall on the Homewood campus on Saturday, Nov. 4, at 4 p.m. An education scholarship fund has been established for Pierre's two daughters, ages 14 and 12.