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Hitting funny bone so students can hit books

By Sam Wood
Inquirer Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA, Pa., May 7, 2010 - For Gloria Ferraro Donnelly, laughter isn’t only the best medicine. It’s also an extraordinarily lucrative way to raise money for students who can’t afford books.

Donnelly, dean of Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, headlined an evening of stand-up comedy Thursday for a newly created Dean’s Emergency Fund.

Her program of gentle, self-deprecating humor netted more than $64,000.

The idea came to Donnelly last year when she noticed a student who was in the library nearly every day. When she asked him why he spent so much time there, he broke down in tears and said he couldn’t afford textbooks, she said.

“It really made an impression on me,” Donnelly said in a preshow interview. “Students sometimes hit bad patches, and they need help to get through it.”

Donnelly has presided over the nursing school during unprecedented growth. Since 2002, enrollment has exploded from 1,360 students to more than 3,200.

On Thursday night, it was faculty, alumni, and friends who exploded with belly laughs as Donnelly riffed on a variety of topics.

Donnelly, who grew up near 22nd and Passyunk in South Philadelphia, reminisced about her role models, who included Carmen Miranda, Esther Williams, Mitzi Gaynor and Moira Shearer.

“They still guide my life,” she said of the glamorous movie stars. “Those are the four role models that drove me to become a psychiatric nurse.”

Donnelly, 68, poked fun at the “depressing, negative” songs she said her generation had grown up listening to in a segment called “Songs for Non-Assertive Women.” She recounted squabbles with her husband over the collection of power tools he never used, and how she had made peace with herself by buying him more tools.

“I hoped he would start making things,” she said. “He did not. He switched to landscape design.”

Donnelly made her first foray into stand-up more than 15 years ago when she was asked to deliver the keynote address at a banquet at Palumbo’s, the Italian Market nightclub that burned to the ground in 1994.

She reworked a presentation on stress reduction for her debut act - not exactly the most promising comedic material.

But she struck a chord, she said, not just with the audience of nurses, but also with the bartenders who roared at the back of the room.

“I thought I could do this again someday,” Donnelly said.

When brainstorming this year for an idea to raise money, she decided to give it one more shot.

“A colleague said, ‘Oh my God, Gloria, what happens if you bomb?’ ” Donnelly said.

Her fearless reply: “Then I won’t do it again.”

“But at least we’ll have the money.”


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