DORIS DILLON – A LIFE WELL LIVED
written and given by Elaine Gould
Doris entered my life in 1965 when she was assigned to Olinder School for her first student teaching period. It was my second year of teaching in San Jose Unified and I was not at all sure of my qualifications to have a student teacher. My concerns were quickly dispelled by this beautiful, cheery, highly intelligent person who arrived in my classroom, full of energy and enthusiasm. The students loved her immediately. She challenged them with high but realistic expectations. She was brimming with creative ideas and ALWAYS had her weekly lesson plans ready on time, neatly prepared in great detail. These were handed to me each Monday morning. To my astonishment, I discovered one Monday that she was traveling to Tahoe every weekend to earn money as a blackjack dealer! I still remember my sense of disbelief and awe! How was she able to do so many things at once and do them all superbly well? It was obvious that she was destined to be a great teacher. That was the foreshadowing of the Doris Dillon who would later have an extensive resume covering all of her professional and personal accomplishments. What I did not know at the time was that we would become lifelong friends and that I would have the joy of watching a magnificent career unfold.
Doris’ next student teaching assignment was with Marilyn Wright at Kirk School. Both Marilyn and I had the pleasure of teaching in future years with Doris, Marilyn at Graystone and I at Henderson.
In 1998, I happened to call the house one afternoon to ask Doris a question. Gary answered and said she would call me back in the evening. She did, and when I heard her slurred voice, I knew instantly something was the matter. She sounded a bit inebriated and I knew that was not Doris. With some gentle questioning on my part, I learned that she had just been diagnosed with ALS. I was shocked, very upset, and yet amazed that she had had the strength to call me back. I knew instantly that I needed to be there to support her in every way possible. That is EXACTLY the same decision that was made by so many of her friends. I began by volunteering at both schools, spending time in classrooms reading to students. This is the one activity that was so close to Doris’ heart, which she could no longer do. She wrote: “The most difficult thing has not been the loss of the voice but the loss of being able to be animated and READ TO KIDS. I look at all the books I loved sharing and the tales of authors that I could weave into a story, but now lack the voice.”
She dealt with ALS exactly as she had everything else in her life, in a positive manner, and with strength of character. There were many tears at the beginning as she adjusted to the shock, the reality and the uncertainty. She did not allow it to completely define her life. She gave it its due, she followed doctor’s orders, and she moved on PURPOSEFULLY, for now she had two additional objectives. In an article entitled THE SUN WILL SHINE TOMORROW for the ALS newsletter Doris said: In the first moments of shock realizing that you are dealing with a terminal situation, I think you need to sit back and take a look at the person you really are. Some will accept the call and quietly deal with the situation while others want to get their life “in order”, anticipating what will happen in the future. For me the decision came as easy as waking up in the morning. I had to keep on working but in addition to my position as a librarian, I wanted to educate and create a greater awareness about ALS to those around me. I had to get my thoughts together and begin the process soon, for time is such an uncertainty.
For the May -June 1999 edition of CREATIVE CLASSROOM, Doris wrote an article called MAKING LEMONADE, she said: Now I have an opportunity, perhaps the most important of my entire career. Yes, I’ve been handed a whole grove of lemons – but I am resolved to make from them a super–vitamin-packed lemonade. At a time when we as educators have worked hard to communicate to students that having a physical challenge doesn’t mean you are not “normal” in every other way, I have a golden opportunity to demonstrate that truth firsthand, every single day I’m at school. I have an opportunity to use my teaching skills to educate others about a little understood disease without a known cause or cure. I have a chance to show my students-by example-the power of persistence, the energy in optimism, and the strength that comes from determination.
She kept her wonderful sense of humor and the occasional sly, little grin, eyes twinkling. The District provided her with a small computer she could carry that could print her words on a screen and also speak in a variety of voice styles, none of which satisfied her. She wanted a sexy voice, which the computer couldn’t provide.
After she had had a feeding tube installed which provided her with the ability for a nutritious liquid diet, she wrote one afternoon last February, Hi Elaine- I am just ready to get off the computer for a delicious dinner---Isosource ala mode!! Don’t I wish.
Inevitably, as her body could no longer keep pace with her sharp mind, she slowed down and worried that she was shirking her responsibilities. I remember telling her more than once, as did Jerri Kazcmierczak, Graystone principal, that she had to start thinking about herself first and reassuring her that both media centers were functioning very well due to all the routine procedures she had put in place. Parent volunteers and students knew exactly what to do. She also had the invaluable help of her full-time aide, Teresa McCarthy, and Michelle Taylor at Graystone
Honors and accolades poured in. She was profiled in a beautifully written, full-page article in TIME Magazine, in the Almaden Times and in a wonderful article by Leigh Weimers in the San Jose Mercury News. She appeared on the CBS Morning Show after Bryant Gumbel read the Time magazine article. Teresa spoke for her. She received a handsome lucite sculpture from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in Washington, D.C., in recognition of her work on the English/Language Arts Committee. In 1999 she was the recipient of the California Reading Association’s Marcus Foster Memorial Reading Award given once a year to the “Californian who has made extraordinary contributions to reading-language arts in our state”. In presenting the award, her friend Barbara Schubert noted three criteria a candidate needed to meet: One is “The superiority of the nominee over all potential nominees throughout the state”. She received the VOICE OF COURAGE AWARD from the National ALS Association at a formal dinner in Los Angeles and was honored at The Women’s Health Symposium at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. Jerri Kazcmierczak was her voice at this event. Doris ended her comments with, “I am strong in spirit and determination to make a difference.”
The greatest honor occurred this year with the naming of The Doris Dillon Center at Columbia Teacher’s College. Peter has told you about the Center’s purpose.
On April 5, a dinner was held at Michael’s restaurant in NYC to mark the official opening of the Doris Dillon Center. Many of Doris’ friends from San Jose flew to NY to participate in this wondrous event in her honor. Doris had rested most of the day to conserve her strength. She arrived at the restaurant wearing an exquisite two piece blue silk dress and coat and carrying her notebook and pens for conversation. Her beautiful smile never left her face as she greeted old friends, met new ones from Columbia Teachers College and enchanted everyone, including the restaurant personnel. This was one of the most important days in her life because the Center represented a culmination to, and an affirmation of, everything she believed in and had worked for so diligently during her entire professional career. There were approximately 70 people in attendance, including Arthur Levine, President of Columbia Teachers College, whom Doris met for the first time that evening. This is how Doris described the affair: Thursday evening was so PERFECT! When Gary and I entered Michael’s Restaurant it was twinkling with soft lighting. We walked into the cocktail hour and everything was alive with SUNFLOWERS and the hum of colorful conversations. It was amazing to see all these friends “mixing” like they had known each other for years and many were meeting for the very first time.
The entire night was magical. It was alive with its own unique energy. Not being able to speak was really NOT a problem for I could feel so much more by observing. I witnessed so many deep conversations and I could sense by the body language a group that exuded with the essence of life.
Pat Cloherty was the perfect hostess. I could not have loved the evening more. To learn from Dr. Art Levine, President of Teachers College, about the Center being a whisper of a thought four years ago and about the year- long search for Peter Cookson to serve as President of the Doris Dillon Center, my heart just beat a little louder. I was so proud to be sitting with this extraordinary group of individuals. ----------Art Levine captured the feeling for the event and the center when he borrowed from the Wizard of Oz by saying---“where dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
Each guest received a personal letter from Doris but she expanded on those thoughts in her speech, which I was privileged to read. Here are some excerpts from what Doris said: I know for a fact that ALL things are possible. But, knowing the Cloherty family for close to 30 years, and being aware of Pat Cloherty’s career as a Venture Capitalist, I never would have dreamed that our lives would be forever linked in this manner. Life is full of surprises and some are unbelievably wonderful – even magical, as is this evening with all of you. If the Center borrows any ideals from my career, I would hope that it stands as a testament to creativity, consistency, diversity and compassion.
All of you know that my career has been rich and varied over the years, with one major change during the last three years. I am using my disease ALS, as a “teachable moment”, for it is NOT something to shy away from, but it too, is part of LIFE itself. It has further defined me and heightened my awareness of diversity, compassion and respect. All of you are EXTRAORDINARY people. Each one of you as a friend has added something to my life and to the mission of this Center.
Never before have so many of my mentors been gathered in one place. As you look around, you may not realize, but I see, like a mosaic, how you all Page 4 of 6
fit together. I see, my colleagues from my fascinating life in education representing my work with Stanford University, the National Board for Teaching Standards, Time for Kids, Scholastic, Creative Classroom, The International and California Reading Associations, Williamsburg Institute and my school and personal friends. As you enjoy yourself tonight, it is as it SHOULD be when all the pieces are in place.
I feel so blessed tonight, and, as a guest here this evening, YOU are presented with a challenge. YOU have now become a witness to the “birth” of the Doris Dillon Center and now take on the duty of a proud “Godparent”. It is your responsibility to watch over its development, check on its well-being, and ALWAYS FOSTER its high ideals in the education area.
This is Doris’ account of what happened the next day: Friday morning Pat had ordered two stretch limos to take a large group on a tour of Teachers College and Columbia. We drove up on this misty morning to this block long traditional brick building and I knew we had arrived. After clearing a lump in my throat we took pictures and walked inside to see the wood paneled hallway and hear Peter tell us stories of the past, present and FUTURE. I was frozen with his words that he would expect the Doris Dillon Center to be here and functioning one hundred years from now. Can you believe the sound of that?
Tonight, at this service to remember Doris, I am extending to all of you the challenge she delivered on April 5, to be a godparent to the Center. Many of you have worked closely with Doris, you have observed her extraordinary abilities and she has been your mentor. The Santa Clara County Office of Education and San Jose Unified will be working with the Center, but you, as individuals can further the Center’s goals just by sharing with the Center web site what you observed or learned from Doris about teaching effectively. They will showcase a monthly teaching tip from Doris.
Here is a life tip from Doris: She said, My life is all about living and welcoming the sunshine of another day and whether it be one day or many, I want to know that I have lived them well, fighting for a cause. That attitude kept her going through the first week of June, when her respiratory problems became acute and she was hospitalized.
She returned home in July to a room beautifully set up for her needs and filled with objects that meant a great deal to her. Her bed faced the window and a view of the Almaden hills. Gary had dressed the huge green oxygen tank by her bed in a long gingham dress and it wore a scarf and straw hat. The top of the dresser facing her was covered with pictures of family and friends. Grant and Deanne hung some of her many plaques and awards and bought her two framed Disney prints of the characters she loved. She was cared for by two wonderful nurses, primarily Rose and, also, Christine. Both of them and her nurses at Kaiser loved her and said she was the best of patients, never complaining, always cooperative and appreciative, even when undergoing the most difficult of procedures to keep her breathing. However, the most outstanding of the nurses was her husband and partner of 34 years, Gary, who did a superb job of making sure she had the very best physical care possible. He learned to perform all the physical procedures she needed so he could assist in her round the clock care; he made sure that she was constantly surrounded by the love of family members and, when she felt well, arranged for friends to visit. He provided her with the security of his love and his presence virtually 24 hours a day. Doris wrote: “I have learned that the love from your family and friends is a blessing that is more precious than you can ever realize” and “My family has been with me every step of the way”. Grant, Deanne, Drew and little Kyle were a constant joy to her. Her mother, Marion, flew back and forth regularly from Los Angeles. One has only to talk to Marion for a few minutes to know where Doris got many of her outstanding qualities.
Being Doris’ friend meant that you were always on the receiving end of many thoughtful gifts, notes and cards in acknowledgement of some occasion. There was always an interest in you as a person and a way of letting you know how much she valued your friendship. She was always positive. She had the ability to instinctively size up people and situations correctly, but I never heard her make a negative comment about anyone - sarcasm and the put-down were not in her vocabulary. However, she could be objectively critical when it came to professional performance and she was a master at evaluating teacher or administrator.
Doris mentioned the connections, the “mosaic” of friends she saw in New York. She believed whole-heartedly in the value of networking. She always saw the connections and the possibilities for furthering her goals of expanding literacy and having all students become lifelong readers. Two weeks ago I told her a whole new network of friends had been created around her that had bonded; had made connections to offer love and support. That brought some tears and a smile and she wrote, “Circle of Life”, her theme.
In closing, there are two images of Doris that will remain forever in my mind. One is her radiance and joy at the Doris Dillon Center dinner and the visit to Columbia Teachers College. The other occurred on what proved to be her last visit to Williams School early in June. I was working in the media center with other volunteers. It was a mess, boxes all over, personal items and books being packed in preparation for the school renovation. Due to the noise of construction equipment outside, I did not hear Doris come into the room and, of course, she couldn’t say anything. I looked up to see her walking into the room, stepping gingerly around objects on the floor. She was a stunning sight. She had on a bright yellow cotton dress with matching jacket, sunglasses on her eyes and a gorgeous Doris Dillon smile on her face. I stood momentarily transfixed. She was a sunbeam stealing into the room and into our hearts and minds, the perfect metaphor, Miss Sunshine.