In Memoriam for Jane Pfeiffer

  • Jane Cahill Pfeiffer (WHF 1966-67): 1932-2019

    The White House Fellows community mourns the passing of Jane Cahill Pfeiffer of the WHF Class of 1966-67. For those of you who did not know her personally, Jane was the first woman selected to be a White House Fellow. Her family prepared the following words in celebration of her life. Also included below are remembrances from several of Jane’s Classmates and other White House Fellows.

    Jane Cahill Pfeiffer, a retired management consultant, former Board Chairman of NBC, and the second female vice president of IBM Corporation died on March 5, 2019 in Vero Beach, Florida. She was 86 years old.

    Jane Pennington Cahill was born on September 29, 1932 in Washington DC to John Joseph Cahill and Helen Reilly Cahill. Her father died when she was seven years old, and Jane moved around the country with her mother, a high-level administrator with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and her older brother, Jack. The family lived in Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco before returning to Washington DC in 1948 where Jane finished high school at The Academy of the Holy Cross, then located on Upton Street, NW in Washington, DC.

    In 1954, Jane graduated with a B.A. from the University of Maryland at College Park. She joined IBM as a systems engineer trainee in 1955. Five years later, she was the site manager of a missile tracking station in Bermuda. During this time she impressed IBM’s then-Chairman Thomas Watson, Jr. with her managerial skills, leadership, assertiveness, and calmness under pressure.

    In 1966, she was chosen as the first female White House Fellow by President Lyndon B. Johnson. She was one of 18 up-and-coming leaders in business, research, and engineering selected to serve in the program. When the assignment ended, Jane returned to IBM to work in the Chairman’s office and eventually became Tom Watson’s Executive Assistant and Secretary of the company’s Management Review Committee. In 1972, she was named IBM Vice President of Communications and Government Relations, becoming the second woman in company history promoted to Vice President.

    In 1975, Jane Cahill married Ralph A. Pfeiffer, Jr., IBM Senior Vice President and Chairman and CEO of IBM World Trade/Far East Americas Corporation, and the couple settled in Greenwich, CT. Jane Pfeiffer left IBM a year later, believing that two top managers being married and working for the same company created potential conflicts of interest.

    In October 1978, at age 46, Mrs. Pfeiffer was named Chairman of the Board of NBC making her the highest-ranking woman executive in broadcasting at the time. After leaving NBC, she continued to serve as board director or trustee for numerous large corporations and educational institutions until her retirement. Her board seats included JC Penney, International Paper, Ashland Oil, MONY, Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, Cheseborough-Ponds, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and the Knight Commission on In University of Notre Dame.

    Mrs. Pfeiffer received many awards throughout her career. In 1979, the University of Maryland awarded her an honorary doctorate, and in 1995, presented her with its Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 1978, she was given the Outstanding Broadcast Executive Award at the first annual Mainstream Women Broadcasting Industry Awards.

    In 1991, Notre Dame awarded her an honorary degree. “As the second woman to be elected to the University’s Board of Trustees, Jane’s impact on governance at Notre Dame was critical,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., president of Notre Dame, “But perhaps even more significant was the inspiration we received through friendship with this remarkable person.”

    A lifelong avid golfer, Mrs. Pfeiffer was a member of John’s Island Club in Vero Beach, FL and Congressional Country Club in Potomac, MD. She loved playing golf courses all over the world, especially in northern Ireland. She was a devout Catholic and a parishioner of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach, FL. Known for her sharp intellect, quick wit, infectious laugh, generous spirit, and keen sense of fun and adventure, Jane will be dearly missed by her many friends, family members, and loved ones.

    Survivors include 10 stepchildren Mary Ellen Pfeiffer of Laguna Beach, CA; Karen Anne Pfeiffer of Woolford and Baltimore, MD; Christine Pfeiffer of Atlanta, GA; Jo Pfeiffer of Santa Barbara, CA; Ralph Pfeiffer of East Haven, CT; Elizabeth Pfeiffer of Boca Raton, FL; John Pfeiffer of Coral Springs, FL; William Pfeiffer of Malibu, CA, Nancy Pfeiffer of Delray Beach, FL; and Thomas Pfeiffer of Coral Gables, FL; 13 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. She is also survived by her sister-in-law Margaret M. Cahill of Alexandria, VA, and three nieces: Libby Cahill of Alexandria, VA; Jane Cahill of Alexandria, VA; and Maureen Carita of Fairfax, VA.

    Remembrance from Bill Graham (WHF Class of 1966-67): Kathryn and I regret that our current presence in Rome on a long planned family holiday will prevent us from attending Jane’s funeral. I had called her two phones as recently as February with no answer, and apparently she was already in hospice by then. We have had occasional phone conversations in recent years as Jane suffered from multiple painful and debilitating illnesses with minimal complaints but great discomfort. She always felt great regret in not joining us for class events, trying her best and always asking to be remembered and sending love to all. Our last visit with her was at her home in Vero, about five years ago. It was a celebration of a life of close friendship with Meg and me and an opportunity for Kathryn and Jane to know each other. A mutual respect and friendship developed instantly. Jane’s competencies and timing from our class to advising large corporations and; institutions was a milestone for all women. Her sense of modesty and privacy kept the public from knowing how distinguished her contributions were at a time when woman directors of public corporations was tokenism. No one who knew or worked with Jane ever regarded her as a mere token. I always pressed her to write of her experiences, and heard that someday she would do so, but it never became her priority. We saw Jane, then Jane and Ralph, a lot over the years. There are so many fond recollections. One Christmas before she married, Jane presented us with a model sailing ship to symbolize times we had semi-seriously discussed sailing together with my three daughters around the world for a few years, with Jane as teacher and role model. She is Auntie Jane to this day. I hope others will attend the funeral and any with recollections to share, please let us hear them. I have a few more. Our ranks narrow, but warm regards are transcendent, Bill

    Remembrance from Walt Humann (WHF Class of 1966-67): Jane Cahill was a member of the Class of 1966-67. We all loved her. Her intelligence, substantial accomplishments and good humor standout in my thoughts. We had a Class retreat here in Texas a few years back and Jane made the trip. We were so glad she did. Jane will be missed.

    Remembrance from Bill Abbott (WHF Class of 1966-67): I first met Jane sitting next to her during the bus ride down to Airlie House that Big Interview Weekend. Right from the start I could see she was not only very smart and a deep thinker but an extraordinarily empathetic person…she certainly was such a pleasure having her in our class and we could always count on her to add an insight and perspective none of the rest of us had. I certainly will miss her.

    Remembrance from Sandy Greenberg (WHF Class of 1966-67): Jane’s career and accomplishments were staggering, exceeded only by her character and devotion to our country. May her memory be for a blessing. With love, Sue and Sandy

    Remembrance from Pierce Linaweaver (WHF Class of 1966-67): To me Jane was an extraordinary executive, sounding board for numerous things, colleague, golfer and friend. It’s been a while (our 50th WHF’s celebration) since we had the benefit of her company, but still lots of good memories. We’ll miss her. Pierce and Karen

    Remembrance from John Bassett (WHF Class of 1966-67): I will remember Jane for her many outstanding qualities, but mostly for her keen mind, calm demeanor, and subtle sense of humor. I feel fortunate to have been a small part of her life. I will miss her!

    Remembrance from Tom Johnson (WHF Class of 1965-66): There never has been a finer White House Fellow in the program’s history than our beloved Jane!

    Remembrance from Judy Rosenstreich (WHF Class of 1976-77): When the opportunity arose to apply for the White House Fellowship, I looked at its history and noted that Jane was the first woman. She helped motivate me to reach for the honor of becoming the first Vermonter to serve as a WHF. Over time I learned more about Jane and enjoyed meeting her at a WHF gathering. It’s been wonderful to hear from members of her class how much they valued her participation and friendship.

    Remembrance from Nancy Steger (Fellow IBM Employee): Jane was admired by IBMers, especially women, for her impressive, and unusual, for that time, ascent into upper management. Like so many, I admired from afar – I did not know her personally, and was never in the same part of the corporation. Given the small number of women at most levels of management, the rest of us watched with interest and pride the success of women like Jane who “made it”.

    Remembrance from Jack LeCuyer (WHF Class of 1977-78): Jane Cahill Pfeiffer, the first woman White House Fellow, was an enthusiastic and lifelong supporter of the White House Fellows Program. When I became Executive Director of the WHF Foundation and Association in 1996, we were in the final stages of our first capital campaign — the Leadership and Commitment Campaign. As I examined the records of campaign donors, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that both prior to and during the campaign, Jane had ensured that many of the companies where she served as a board member were listed as corporate matches that leveraged her own contributions to the WHF Program, many with repeated matches over several years. Over the intervening years and until the end of our recent Campaign for the WHF in 2015, Jane and I had many telephone conversations about the future of the WHF Program. She always called me “Dear,” and shared her concerns about alumni support and recruiting our nation’s finest young leaders for the fellowship. Despite battling various medical issues and trips to the Mayo Clinic she remained a very generous contributor to and supporter of the WHF Program and was extremely disappointed when health issues prevented her from joining us for the 50th Anniversary Celebration in November 2015. I only met Jane personally once (at the 40th Anniversary Celebration), but our telephone conversations always made me feel as if we were longtime personal friends. Her sparkling personality and enduring support for the WHF Programs and John Gardner’s vision for us all, even as she battled serious medical issues, are memories that I will cherish forever. Jane Cahill Pfeiffer embodied everything that John Gardner envisioned for the White House Fellows. She left her Fellowship year to return to the private sector, where she excelled in leadership in the corporate and non-profit world, while maintaining a lifelong commitment to public service and the White House Fellows Program. She stands as a role model for us all. May she rest in peace!


    We extend our deep condolences to Jane’s family and to her White House Fellow classmates.

    posted: March 25, 2019
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