Marist Magazine

Making History

Leslie Bates

Dorothy Kondash Willis ’68, one of the first women to graduate from Marist, earned her degree at age 37 while raising 10 children

Dorothy Willis '68 graduates as her children look on

Dorothy Kondash Willis graduated in 1968 with 8 0f her 10 children in attendance. They were (left to right) Kathy, Walter, Frances, Felicia, Michael, Steve, Jim, and Anna. Photo: Henry Reichert Photography

Fall 2018 — Dorothy Kondash Willis ’68 began her quest for higher education before she finished high school. She took the GED in 11th grade and immediately headed to college in Boston. However, life had different plans for her. It would be 20 years before she completed her degree. But she did it. The second woman to graduate from Marist College, she not only earned a degree, but did it while raising 10 children.

Dot Willis was born in Newark, NJ, and grew up in Nutley, NJ, where she took the GED, was accepted to Radcliffe, and moved to Boston at age 17.

“Then,” she says, “I got distracted. I met John Willis. We started going out together.” She left Radcliffe and in 1950 she and John, a member of Harvard’s Class of 1952, were married.

They moved to Southern California, where John’s father was a farmer and his mother a teacher. Their first four children, Anna, Jackie, Joe, and Walter, were born in California. Jim and Steve were born in Arizona, where the family had moved for John’s new position. She took classes at Arizona State University, where she had a tuition benefit through her husband’s job.

John’s work took the family to several more states. Felicia was born in Ohio, Frances in Illinois, and Mike and Kathy in Poughkeepsie. Here, Willis looked at the options for continuing her education. “Marist was all men,” she remembers.

Dorothy and John ended up divorcing, and she continued her quest for a college education, taking classes at Dutchess Community College. She also found time to volunteer at the Adriance Memorial Library in Poughkeepsie.

And then, she says, “Thankfully, Marist opened its doors to women.” The College began admitting women in 1966.

Daycare was expensive, but Willis was able to find students from DCC to babysit at night while she was in class. She majored in history.

“I remember my Mom studying and writing in notebooks when I was little,” says daughter Frances Antonelli. “This stayed with me as a normal part of our family home life and inspired me to study and prepare for college as well.”

In 1968, at age 37, after years of taking classes at four institutions while caring for her growing family, Willis donned a cap and gown. She received her diploma as 8 of her 10 children looked on.

Her next objective was to get a job and earn an income, and she soon accomplished that as well. After graduation she volunteered as a park aide at the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, NY, run by the National Park Service. Her supervisor encouraged her to take the exam required by the US government for full-time employment at its agencies.

She took the exam and landed a job at the US Military Academy at West Point. She worked there for 15 years, retiring at age 62.

Today, Dorothy Willis lives in Florida, where she enjoys volunteering at the local library. “Libraries are my heart,” she says. “It’s a delightful place to be socially,” she adds.

This past July she embarked with daughters Kathy Willis and Frances Antonelli on the Cunard Queen Mary 2 from New York City to Southampton, England. Upon her return to New York, Willis, daughter Kathy, and daughter Felicia McGinty visited old friends in the Hudson Valley and took a tour of Marist. Five members of the Class of 1968 joined her for a luncheon in her honor, where several classmates expressed their admiration for her trailblazing as one of the first women to attend Marist.

Dorothy Willis '68 with her daughters on a cruise

In July, Dorothy Kondash Willis ’68 (right) and daughters Kathy Willis (left) and Frances Antonelli sailed on the Cunard Queen Mary 2 from New York City to Southampton, England.

What advice would she give mothers seeking a college education while raising families? “To some extent you have to have the cooperation of your children,” she says. “And I did have that. They understood that it was important that I go to college.

“I think sometimes women find themselves like I did: you’re divorced and have no personal income.”

But she says she was fortunate in that her father bought the family a house in Poughkeepsie, and she was grateful to have a compassionate supervisor who encouraged her to take steps to get a permanent job instead of a temporary one.

“You meet a lot of nice people in this world, and I have been blessed.”

To read the full fall 2018 issue of Marist magazine, click here.

Dorothy Willis with fellow Class of 1968 members left to right Don Brown, John Ritschdorff, Dan Kuffner, and Joe Walsh

On Aug. 6, Dorothy Kondash Willis ’68 visited the Marist campus and joined fellow Class of 1968 members (left to right) Don Brown, John Ritschdorff, Dan Kuffner, and Joe Walsh to celebrate their 50th-reunion year. Photo: Al Nowak/On Location

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