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Washtenaw United: Molly Dobson - Empowering women and building community through philanthropy

Molly Dobson
United Way of Washtenaw County
Molly Dobson

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Molly turned 99 in February and is a long-time Ann Arbor resident who has broken through glass ceiling and barriers throughout her lifetime in support of women.  


Molly Dobson was the first woman to join the UWWC board of directors and was honored as the Women of the Year for United Way of Washtenaw County’s Power of the Purse event in 2020. Molly has been a donor, volunteer and leader at United Way for decades in addition to numerous organizations across Washtenaw County. We are so excited and thankful she has agreed to be our guest on Washtenaw United.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to another Women's History Month edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and today we're going to talk with the woman who was seen almost a full century of history, has been through a great deal over the decades, and still holds forth with hope and optimism for the future. Molly Dobson is 99 years old now and has spent much of her life here in Washtenaw County. She's been leading philanthropic efforts in finding ways to support and empower women. Molly, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to talk with you today.

Molly Dobson: I'm looking forward to our conversation. Thank you.

David Fair: You were born in what many call the roaring 20s. Tell me a little bit about your childhood and how that informed your sense of service to community.

Molly Dobson: I was born in 1923, lived in Detroit. I had both of my parents were active in local causes. My mother was very interested in Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, basically. That was her big due. And my dad, I can remember, used to sell newspapers on Thanksgiving on the corner somewhere downtown. Very involved. United Way was big at that time for them. It had another name, probably the community chest.

David Fair: Right. I remember that. As a young woman, you went to college at the University of Michigan, and that was a time when far less women were seeking out a path through higher education. What did you study, and what did you get your degree in?

Molly Dobson: My major at the University of Michigan was English literature. No one ever asked me what I planned to do when I graduated with a major in English literature, but that was my major in it. It was a privilege to have it, but it wasn't very practical if you had to support yourself. Fortunately, that was not my problem.

David Fair: And as I understand it, when you did graduate in 1944, you had every intention of becoming what was then called a stewardess and what we call today a flight attendant. But your dad helped you change your mind. What did he say to you?

Molly Dobson: Once I graduated--No, it was my birthday in February. My graduation was in May--my family came over to my sorority to give me a hug and give me a present. And my dad said to me, "Sis, what are you planning on doing?" And it's funny. They hadn't asked me that about four years before that, before I set up a major and all that. But they hadn't, and maybe they didn't do that in those times. I'm not quite sure. But you can't do a lot with English literature. It's a privilege. It's a wonderful privilege that lasts through your lifetime. But I said, "Well," with great halting, "Maybe be a stewardess." And both of my brothers who were in the service and my dad had been in World War One. And he said, "Sis, you think that's doing enough for your country?" I think that's the first time either my mother or my father asked me any question like that where I had to sort of put things together, but he didn't like that stewardess, so they were recruiting on campus at that time. It was 1944. We were at war to the east and to the west, and I signed up and went in the Navy, certainly thereafter.

David Fair: Our conversation with Molly Dobson continues on the second of our Washtenaw United Women's History Month conversations on 89 one WEMU. So, you joined the Navy, and you go into service as World War Two continues. What did you do in the Navy?

Molly Dobson: I was there. I was in what was called communications, which basically was coding and decoding there in a room in Washington, D.C. after four months of training to before I got my commission. Was commissioned an ensign. And before I was assigned to communications. And so, I had that four months of training in Northampton on the Smith College campus.

David Fair: You pointed out that your father asked, "What have you done for your country?" And that led you to join the Navy. When your service in the Navy was up and you came back home, how did you then make the decision to dedicate your life to philanthropy?

Molly Dobson: Um. Good question. Both my mother and my father were very generous people, very absorbed with their community and had major and minor concerns about things that were happening in my collection. And so, I had things to observe, and you had to know that I wanted to be involved and to follow the pattern.

David Fair: I've been told that, on occasion, as you would go and fundraise for the various entities that you chose to support, you would go door-to-door as they did in the day. And women answering would tell you that they had to wait for their husband to get home. And I'm told your reply was, "Well, you have a purse, don't you?" Did that work?

Molly Dobson: I could tell you that you're just about right in your story. I would knock on the door and the woman would say, "My husband gives at the office." And by the time I got to the third door and I got to say, "My husband gives at the office." It was then that I said, "Well, don't you have a purse? Wouldn't you like to give?" And she went and got her purse and probably gave me a dollar. It wasn't a big deal to her. And I just don't think women at that time were very absorbed in community endeavors and needs.

David Fair: And that's where I want to take our conversation next. WEMU's Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU. Today, we're talking with Molly Dobson, who is sharing her nearly century-long life experiences as we mark Women's History Month. Molly, you've been involved with numerous charitable organizations that seek to improve upon female empowerment. You are known for your work with the University of Michigan's Development Summer Internship Program, helping with leadership skills training. You've been a donor and served as a board member at Washtenaw Community College, and you were the first woman to serve on the board of directors at the United Way of Washtenaw County. Was it a conscious choice to find all of these ways to break the so-called glass ceiling?

Molly Dobson: No, I didn't know what I was doing. I was just interested in the community and helping resolve problems that exist within that community. I hadn't really thought it through very scientifically.

David Fair: It's amazing what you can do when you're not even paying attention, right?

Molly Dobson: Yes. Well, I had three little folks at home--bang, bang, bang--and it was very nice to get out of the house and learn about what was happening in my community and meet other adults that were concerned about the community.

David Fair: For all of your service to community in 2020, the United Way of Washtenaw County named you as Woman of the Year. And more than 30 area organizations and institutions and their various representatives made sure to show up and honor the myriad of ways you've enhanced their ability to better serve the community. Did that serve as even more inspiration to continue the path of philanthropy?

Molly Dobson: Oh no. I think I was thoroughly committed at that time. I couldn't go much further. And I knew it all, and I probably knew a lot more about the community and the various boards and committees and services performed than most of my contemporaries--female contemporaries. It was a privilege to be out there.

David Fair: You have children, you have grandchildren, and you have great grandchildren. Is this now a family tradition that philanthropy is at the center and community service at the center of how best to move forward?

Molly Dobson: That's an interesting question. I try very hard to push it on my grandchildren that they have a responsibility to perform, and that life isn't all about the extravagance, and that there has to be some commitment to get involved and to be generous. And I work hard at that. I don't know that my results are what I like them to be, but at least they're getting a pattern of giving and donating and being responsible for the changes in the community.

David Fair: You talk about responsibility to finding ways to give and enhance community. There are those who have to be on the receiving end of such efforts. Not everyone has the luxury of giving money. I know that you ask those who have money to do so, but even for those who may not be able to contribute financially, do you encourage them to find some way to give and somehow pay forward?

Molly Dobson: That's an interesting question, I haven't taken that too seriously, but I think it's with either saying what your parents are doing that pattern or maybe a good teacher at school that creates a pattern within you. But being involved and volunteering, you have more and more conviction about the needs within the community.

David Fair: You are about to approach the century mark of a lifetime, and through the years, you've gathered a lot of wisdom. So, as we have to make way and bring our conversation to an end today, what is the one statement of wisdom you can pass along to us that perhaps we can carry forward?

Molly Dobson: Get out there in your community. It's a fascinating place and worthy of your being involved and with strong convictions, donating your time and what's in your purse. I think that would be my advice. Don't think everybody else will take care of it and you have no responsibility because you do. We all do.

David Fair: Well said. And, Molly, I thank you very much for taking time to talk with me today and sharing portions of your story. I'm most grateful.

Molly Dobson: Thank you very much.

David Fair: That is 99 year-old Washtenaw County resident Molly Dobson, a philanthropist and champion of women's equality and empowerment and of community service. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday, and we will continue our Women's History conversations next Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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