Canzano: A final lesson in perseverance from Sister D
"Keep telling the stories people need to hear."
PORTLAND — I woke on Tuesday morning thinking about the hill on Portland’s SW 17th Ave. and the nun who lived at the top of it.
Sister Dolores Doohan and I became friends a couple of decades ago. She loved sports and wrote a few times over the years, offering words of encouragement and insight.
We spoke on the telephone, too. “Sister D” would tell me about her favorite teams and explain what was wrong with the sports world. I’d listen and nod. Eventually, she’d steer the conversation into a tale about her 38-year teaching career at St. Clare School, the elementary school down the hill from her home.
One of her students told me once, “When it was icy in the winter, she’d wrap her feet in chains before she came walking down that big hill. There was nothing that could stop her.”
Another told me, “You should have seen her coach eight-person, flag football. She’d wear her long, black nun’s habit and pace the sidelines.”
Sister Dolores died last November.
She was 93.
Sister D retired and moved from Oregon to Iowa more than a decade ago. We kept in touch over the years. Turns out, droves of her former students did, too. They exchanged letters, emails and spoke on the phone once in a while, thanking her for the impact she’d had on their lives.
“She would not let you quit,” one of them said.
“She didn’t allow excuses,” another offered.
I remember calling Sister Dolores on Thanksgiving in 2011. She picked up the phone and was polite, but asked if I might call back later. I’d interrupted an important event. She was knee-deep in her afternoon card game with the other nuns.
“We take our cards seriously,” she said.
A few years back, I received an email from a mother who wanted to tell me a quick story. Their daughter was a high school volleyball player. “Senior Night” — the final match of her prep career — was approaching and Mom informed me that her daughter had been through a grueling couple of years.
The ball and socket of Katie Malueg’s hip were a mess. She’d had a surgery, and suffered labral tears and was isolated during her recovery. Her mother wrote to tell me Katie got through the ordeal using lessons she learned in elementary school from her favorite teacher, Sister Dolores.
I wasn’t surprised.
“As a first-through-third grader at St. Clare School, she spent many rainy-day recesses in Sr. D’s office playing ‘Kings in the Corner’,” mom wrote. “My daughter didn’t realize it at the time, but she learned many wonderful things in that tiny office, such as how to be competitive and win or lose with grace.
“She also learned perseverance.”
That was Sister Dolores’ favorite spelling-test word: P-E-R-S-E-V-E-R-A-N-C-E.
As a child, Dolores Doohan watched her father, an Irish immigrant, work the docks in San Francisco. He never complained. She didn’t, either. Sister D refused to gripe, even after her hip was surgically fused and she walked with a cane.
“As long as the head is still working, you know?” she told me once. “As long as two and two are still four, that’s fine. If two-and-two becomes five, someone will come and say, ‘That's enough, it’s time to do something else.’”
That time came in December of 2007.
After retiring and being re-located to Iowa, Sister Dolores volunteered to tutor elementary-school kids. She continued to mentor her old students from afar, too. She took courses at a community center and joined a choir. And this columnist still heard from her, especially when he wrote about the world of sports losing its way.
“Makes me feel bad when sports gets reduced to money-money,” she told me in 2011, “that bothers me.”
She would have hated the defections of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. She would have been disappointed, too, in seeing Deshaun Watson slapped on the wrist with a six-game suspension. Sister Dolores would have shook her head at the absurdity of it all and told me, as she often did, to focus on the strength of human spirit.
“Keep telling the stories people need to hear,” she said.
She emailed in 2009, after I penned an uplifting column about legendary ex-Trail Blazers’ broadcaster Bill Schonely, to say, “Thanks for pointing out the goodness of this wonderful, caring man.”
In 2012, Sister D read my piece about a sixth-grader who finished distant last at a CYO track meet and got a standing ovation. She wrote, “What an example for our children to read.”
In 2015, Sister Dolores saw my column about Parik Singh, a Portland police officer who took off his boots and gave them to a homeless man. She wrote, “It was such a special story.”
This was a woman who gave what little she had to others — putting worn $5 bills in Christmas and birthday cards she slipped to her students.
Sports was her escape.
Lately, it hasn’t felt like much of one.
I intended to write about Sister Dolores months ago, after her death. Several of her students reached out to me last November to tell me her health was failing. She died three days after Thanksgiving. A small service was held in Iowa and The Dubuque Advertiser wrote a six-paragraph obituary.
Sister Dolores deserved so much more.
Sports is filled with lots of highs and lows. I remember talking with Sister Dolores once about why she loved games so much. She explained that sport contained an abundance of perseverance. There are daily examples of resilience and mettle on display. The quickest way out of a mess, she insisted, was to lean into your faith, and get straight through it. Sports exemplified that.
The Pac-12 Conference could use one of her famous pep talks today. So could disillusioned NFL fans. So could any GM stuck with a broken roster or any player battling a career-threatening injury.
I woke thinking about Sister Dolores.
That hill never had a chance.
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Great story about an inspirational human. Many thanks for writing it.
Great story John
Any of us who "survived Catholic School" have a favorite nun. There were several in my life who were both feared and beloved. My favorite was Sister Frances Jacobs who taught Honors English for many years at the then, all male Central Catholic High School. On a day in which she was especially disappointed in us, she opined that "This freshman class is a bunch of boobs!" There was a very pregnant pause as our 15 year-old minds landed on the very obvious sophomoric connotation. Quickly realizing the error of her phrasing, Sister Frances burst out laughing just a split second before the rest of us joined in. Great woman, great teacher.