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Former Catawba College First Lady Dies

December 07, 2006

Category: Alumni


DearbornMary Omwake Dearborn, beloved former first lady of Catawba College, died December 6 after a short period of declining health. Mrs. Dearborn, 95, was the daughter of Catawba's 13th president, Dr. Howard R. Omwake (1931-42) and the wife of Catawba's 15th president, Dr. Donald Dearborn (1963-1967).

A memorial service for Mrs. Dearborn was held in the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel on campus at 11 a.m. on Saturday, December 9. Visitation with the family was held from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Friday, December 8 at Summersett Funeral Home at 1315 W. Innes Street.

"The loss of Mary Dearborn will be felt throughout the fabric of the Catawba College community," said Catawba College President Dr. Robert Knott. "Mary was a lovely and gracious institution at the College. She not only carried with her a living memory of Catawba College and its people, but she embodied the very best qualities of who a Catawba person is.

Dearborn"Mary's interest in the institution reached from the assistant coach to the members of the Board of Trustees. Her advice and insights to each of us were invaluable. I personally learned as much about Catawba College from Mary Dearborn as I did from any other member of the community. To say she will be ‘deeply missed' is an understatement of major proportions. We were enriched by her presence, saddened by the loss of her and grateful for presence among us," Knott concluded.

Mrs. Dearborn was attending Middlebury College when her father became president of Catawba in 1931. After her graduation, she came to Salisbury and coached a variety of women's sports at Catawba, played the organ for chapel, and taught French. At Catawba, she met a young mathematics professor, Dr. Donald Dearborn, who would eventually become dean and then president of Catawba. The two were married on July 1, 1937.

DearbornThereafter, Mrs. Dearborn "kept home" and raised the couple's three children, Katharine, Ralph and Betsy, while actively supporting her husband's burgeoning career at Catawba. Dr. Dearborn assumed the Catawba presidency on March 1, 1963 and Mrs. Dearborn became the institution's first lady. 

Catawba College Trustee and Alumna Martha Kirkland West '59 grew up on the Catawba campus, the daughter of legendary coach and faculty member, the late Gordon Kirkland. She recalled with fondness her lifelong relationship with Mary Dearborn:  "She was a part of my life from the day I was born. My family lived across the hall from her family for five years (in Newton Hall on the Catawba campus, faculty apartments, now Hurley Hall). I just always knew that she was interested in what I was doing.

"She was my role model and I told her that a number of times," West continued. "She was truly interested in everybody and everything, and it was just as genuine as it could be. Her people skills really set her apart, but, I think her zest for living is the thing that I will remember the longest. She was interested in everything. She kept going even when I know she was in pain.

Dearborn"At age 95, she went to football games, to plays, and to concerts. She played bridge at my house three weeks ago – to think that we had gone from her teaching me to sing little songs when I was two years old to us playing bridge in my bridge club together. She just was amazing in so many ways."

West remembered that when Mrs. Dearborn left her home on Summit Avenue to move to Trinity Oaks several years ago, she had "a house cooling."  "It's the opposite of a house warming," West explained. "Mary wanted her friends to come and pick out something of hers to keep. I picked a Christmas decoration and I put it out every year.

Despite moving from her longtime home across the street from the Catawba campus to Trinity Oaks, "Mary went with such a positive attitude," West remembered.

Jackie Burleson, the daughter of another Catawba College faculty member and coach, the late Dr. Earl Ruth and wife Jane, has similar memories to those Martha West had of Mrs. Dearborn. Burleson was fast friends with the Dearborn children, especially the youngest child, Betsy. She recalled that her first "spend the night out" was at the Dearborn home.

DearbornOf Mary Dearborn, Burleson said, "She was always the most interested person in what other people had to say, and she was the most genuine person who always was just who she was. If you did something for her, she was quick to show her appreciation, but it was never gushy. You never doubted that she was grateful for what you did for her. You always felt good that you had been able to spend time with her."

Catawba College Senior Vice President Tom Childress shared this memory of Mrs. Dearborn:  "She celebrated her 95th birthday on campus this year during the Carson-Newman football game. At the pre-game meal, she was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" by over 250 well-wishers. Later with birthday cake in the President's Box, she was ready for the contest. During the game when the crowd became a little quiet in the box, she instructed everyone to make some noise, and we did!  With a thrilling victory, she again had a big hand in leading Catawba to another win.

"We will miss her but have been so blessed to have enjoyed her friendship. Mary Dearborn was a reflection of all that is good in a person. She was kind and sensitive, yet inside was a very competitive lady," Childress said.

On November 11, 1967, while sitting in the Shuford Stadium stands at another Catawba College football game with her mother, husband and friends, Mrs. Dearborn's life was forever changed. Dr. Dearborn suffered a fatal heart attack that afternoon while watching the contest between Catawba and Guilford. He was 57 years old and left behind Mrs. Dearborn and their three children, two of whom had completed their college degrees, and the youngest of whom was completing her senior year in college.

After her husband's death, Mrs. Dearborn cultivated and maintained her strong connections to Catawba. She worked in the alumni office of the college from 1968 through 1977.

"She was one of my best friends because we knew so many of the same people from both Catawba and the UCC," explained longtime Catawba employee and alumna Louise Tucker '44. "We could make connections between students who were at Catawba and their parents and probably, their grandparents.

"We had just had brunch on Friday before she became ill and we were there about an hour and a half, drinking coffee, eating pancakes and talking. She was a real lady and the youngest 95-year-old I know. She could run circles around me even with her back hurting. She never gave up, no matter what pain she had. I'm going to miss her and the world is not going to be the same."

Mrs. Dearborn was a longtime member of the Chiefs Club and actively supportedEvents sponsored by the Shuford School of Performing Arts. Catawba awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1976, the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award in 1977, and the Catawba Distinguished Alumnus Award in1988. In 1995, at Catawba's annual Service of Praise and Thanksgiving, she was one of five individuals recognized for their exemplary lives of service.

At that time, then Catawba College President J. Fred Corriher, Jr. said of Mrs. Dearborn in his remarks:  "Mary Omwake Dearborn's life is one so integrally intertwined with Catawba College that the two are inseparable. She has been ... and remains to this very moment the epitome of the Catawba College personality:  warm, giving, caring and loving."

David Setzer, who is retired as Catawba's longtime executive assistant to the president, also had fond remembrances of Mrs. Dearborn. "Mary Dearborn was a lady of great dignity and a terrific sense of humor," he said. "I was privileged to know her from the days when she was first lady of Catawba through her years of working in the alumni office. As employees, we all had a great time together and she just blended right in with everybody.

"It has been my privilege to know her all these years. She was just a wonderful person and I don't know anybody who did not like or have the greatest respect for her and Dr. Dearborn. They made a great Catawba couple," Setzer said.

Mrs. Dearborn held leadership positions in a number of civic and professional clubs and was active on the local, conference and national levels of the United Church of Christ. She was president of Senior Citizens Prime Timers from 1986-1993 and volunteered with the United Way, Rowan Community Concert Association, Meals on Wheels and the Council on Aging. A voracious reader, she was a member of Mardi Book Club and Travelers Club and regularly attended Catawba's annual Brady Author's Symposium.

In addition to her three children, survivors include five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers memorial gifts be made to the Omwake-Dearborn Scholarship fund at Catawba College, 2300 W. Innes Street, Salisbury, NC or the First United Church of Christ, 207 W. Horah Street, Salisbury, NC 28144.