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Splash Page | Alumni profile | Notables

Dorothy Willey 101

This centenarian's memories of her TCU years are still strong.

By Cathy Frisinger

It was late summer 1924 and the day dawned hot because, well, every day dawns hot in Fort Worth in the summer. But Dorothy Henderson was too excited to notice the heat as she walked the six blocks to her new school: It was her first day as a student at Texas Christian University.

"My family lived in Gainesville and Beeville and Houston," Dorothy Henderson Willey '28 recalls. But fortunately for Dorothy, the Hendersons had moved to Fort Worth by the time she was ready for college. "I lived near the campus. I could walk to the campus from my home."

Dorothy was excited because a university education wasn't available to everybody in 1924. Women, especially, were likely to end their education after high school unless their family was well-to-do, but Dorothy's proximity to TCU made attendance there possible. As she walked to her first day at her new school, Dorothy thought about the myriad opportunities open to her. She thought she'd like to study science.

Now 101 years old, Dorothy is believed to be the oldest living graduate of TCU.

While time has obviously taken some toll, Willey is in remarkably good health. She lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., in an assisted-living facility because she needs some help getting up and down, but she lived on her own until October 2007. Now she has full-time assistance, but Dorothy answers her own phone, gets around with the aid of walker, manages some correspondence and this summer enjoyed a long visit with her younger sister.

"She is an inspiration. She eats pomegranate juice, fruits, vegetables, fish. There is no food in her fridge that doesn't say fat-free," says Sabina Slocum, her caretaker. "She takes care of her skin, her body, her face. As far as the mind, she remembers everything."

Dorothy proved that she remembers a lot in telephone conversations that were limited only by Dorothy's hearing problems. But once she understands what the questioner is asking, Dorothy is delighted to talk at length about her life at TCU and beyond.

She remembers going to classes and attending athletic events. Her friends, because she didn't live on campus and didn't belong to a sorority, were mostly classmates who lived in Fort Worth.

"I enjoyed my years at TCU. Some of the classes were hard. The most difficult ones where math and physics. I didn't take but one year of physics because I didn't like it very much. I went to a lot of the football games and I was very much interested in all that.

"I remember a German friend sent me a beautiful white chrysanthemum with purple ribbons on it that I wore to a football game. I had lots of local friends there. One of them was a girl named Moreen Woolwine. She lived in my neighborhood. I had another friend named Edwin Hooks '29, who was in some of my classes." [Hooks later became a Maj. General in the armed services.]

In a shaky voice, Dorothy recalls that she was a member of the Business Girls Club. "We had monthly meetings and I was the president. We tried to keep up with what was going on in the business world and prepare ourselves for future employment there."

Dorothy also belonged to the Science Club and, yes, she did end up majoring in science, specifically chemistry.

"The last year of my chemistry, I had biochemistry and there were only three of us in the class," she recalls. Several times during the semester the students were asked to use their own blood for conducting tests, but "I wasn't eager to give blood for the tests," Dorothy recalls, "so poor Leslie Chambers had to give all the blood."

Despite her timidity about bloodletting, Dorothy was an able student and she worked as the student assistant to her chemistry professor. "It was a way of earning part of my yearly fees so that my family didn't have to pay all of them. I could be somewhat independent."

Dorothy may have stayed close to home for college, but her TCU studies proved to be a launching board for a career that took her to faraway places.

Her first job after graduation was working for Esso labs in Baton Rouge. "But that was before air-conditioning and one could sit down at a job and feel the perspiration running down your body, so that wasn't for me," she says. She moved on to New York City, where she worked for a company that made chemicals for a variety of industries. "I used to love to walk the streets of New York City at night," Dorothy recalls. She passed a fellow TCU grad on a New York City street one day. "I was so surprised to see her there."

As exciting as New York was, after about three years she decided that the The Big Apple wasn't for her. Next stop was Cleveland. "I answered an advertisement for a company called Lubrizol. They wanted a person with a B.S. in chemistry to serve as the assistant to the research director at a company in Cleveland, Ohio. I sent them a resume. They usually required an interview but when they saw my resume they said, 'Let's dispense with the interview. How soon can you get here?' "
Cleveland might sound like a step down from New York, but it suited Dorothy just fine. "I liked Cleveland. It's where I learned how to shovel snow."

It's also where she met Arthur Willey, her boss who eventually became her husband. Dorothy and Arthur married in 1946.

She retired from Lubrizol at that time. The company didn't allow family members to work in the company, and, besides, it wasn't usual for married women to work in that era.

She did volunteer work after that, including working as a nurse's aide for the Red Cross. Dorothy and Arthur travelled a lot, including a round-the-world trip the year that Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. "Nobody could understand why she married him," Dorothy recalls.

Eventually the couple moved to Arizona, where she continued her volunteer activities. "She was a YWCA member and for quite some time she was president," says Slocum. "Dorothy was always involved in women supporting women. The (Scottsdale) YWCA gives a Dorothy Willey award."

In 1994, Dorothy established the Dorothy and Arthur Willey Scholarship, an endowed scholarship at TCU. Last year, the award went to Lindsey Pool, who graduated in May from the College of Science and Engineering.

Arthur died in 1992, at the age of 90. Dorothy, 83 at the time, continued with her volunteer activities. And even after she's gone, Dorothy will continue to give. She's made arrangements for her body to be donated to science, Slocum says.

But don't expect that to happen soon. "You just realize your problems are nothing when you see her will to live," says Slocum.

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