Senior Spotlight: Dotty Ruppert

By Mary Bowers

Dottie was born in 1938 in Brooklyn to Dorothy and John Comer, both of Irish-Catholic descent. She had three younger (thankfully…gave her a fighting chance!) brothers…2 years, 5 years and 6.5 years younger, respectively. The youngest sadly passed away about 15 years ago. Her family lived through the depression but didn’t suffer as much as many since her grandparents had jobs in civil service. Her father was a teacher and so had a deferment from WW11 although he did serve as an air raid warden. She vaguely remembers blackouts and her dad going around with a flashlight to make sure everyone turned out the lights. Her mother didn’t work outside the home until the youngest went into 8th grade but then took a job at the nearby Brooklyn College in the romance language department and really loved it. Dad said “if you go to work, I’ll retire.” She did, he didn’t. It was a good life….good family, nice middle working class neighborhood, 2-story stucco house with coal-radiator heat, Italian, Irish, and German neighbors some of whom were recent immigrants and still spoke the native language. “I was very lucky.”

The Comer kids went to the local parish school, Our Lady Help of Christians. Dottie really liked school. She worked hard, got good grades, liked most of the nuns, had a best friend named Anne Marie Macky (Scotch, not Irish which mattered very much, thank you) and a number of other good friends. Her sports career was diverse. They iced skated at the Brooklyn Ice Palace as well as the lake in Prospect Park but she wasn’t very good. Each year she was sure she’d be better the next but she never was. She did enjoy playing basketball, though…half-court (of course!) as well as roller skating in the streets and swimming in the Atlantic ocean. Her high school years were spent at St. Saviors which was an all-girls school, unlike the co-ed elementary school. She was still wearing the dreaded school uniform but still liking school. Although, looking back she would have preferred it be co-ed, thinking that’s a more normal way to grow up, she enjoyed this small school with only 40 kids in her class.

In their junior year, they were allowed one elective and she chose 3rd year Latin over physics since she was good in and enjoyed languages, like her mother. She jokes that it’s come in very handy over the years! After high school, Dottie moved not far from home but to another world, Greenwich Village, to attend a 3 year Nursing Program and get her RN. It was hard work as after 6 months of school, the students studied and worked shifts in the hospital. They lived together in a nurse’s residence and never had any money so after school/work they would walk around the Village and found it fascinating. This was the late 50’s and there were beatniks, gays, all kinds of different people…nothing like the part of Brooklyn where she had lived.

In 1959, after nursing school, Dottie went into the convent. She was motivated by a desire to continue helping people with her nursing skills and to see the world. She thinks that had there been a Peace Corp at the time, she may have joined that, but there wasn’t and she was a Catholic girl so she joined the Maryknoll Sisters, a group that sent people around the world. She had read books by Dr. Tom Dooley, a doctor who worked in Vietnam and thought that would be really cool. The convent was outside of New York City in Westchester County, a big place with “a lot of rules and regulations…pretty old school.” Her mother had a hard time accepting the fact that she wouldn’t get married and have children but was, overall, ok with her decision.

The first year the family could visit once a month, the second year they could visit once a year and the third year back to once a month. The sisters were supposed to be silent but “there was a lot of whispering going on.” Even with these small acts of rebellion, Dottie felt restricted at first. They worked in the morning and had classes in the afternoon…things like theology which had her thinking “I’m a nurse so why am I taking this?” But after awhile “you begin to feel a part of something connected and it’s ok.”

After the third year, she made her First Vows and went back to New York from Massachusetts where she had been for two years, attended school and took classes towards a bachelor’s degree. After a year of that she was assigned to a nursing home for elderly sisters, most of whom had been teachers, primarily in the Philippines and China….they had been out of the country and Dottie was thinking “when do I get to leave and do my thing?”

She noticed that the dynamic at the nursing home was very interesting in that she was both a junior sister and their nurse at the same time. Who gets to tell whom what to do?? After this stint, it was off to Hunter College in Manhattan to finish up her bachelor’s degree while still living in a convent. This was when “my eyes began to open.” She was there for two years taking both nursing and general education classes while interacting with people and students. A lot of them were working full time and going to school while “I was just going to school.” I thought “this is interesting” and began to wonder about how the world works….life, religion, all of it. “What am I doing with both?”

And then it finally happened…she got assigned to a parish that had a neighborhood clinic in Guatemala City. “It was very good to live outside of the US and learn a new language. My politics shifted a lot, seeing how the US dealt with Central America, seeing the poverty, seeing how the church fit into the community. The hierarchy of the church were part of the elite class.” This was the mid-60’s and “a lot of things were changing in the world and in the church.” Dottie’s  whole belief system and way of looking at the world changed and this is when she decided she no longer believed the things she’d grown up believing and decided to leave the church. It was hard, of course, since she had invested a good part of her life in it but a good number of her friends were going through the same thing and left at the same time. Both an ending and a beginning, this is where she met Bill, a Maryknoll priest who had also decided to leave the church. People have asked Dottie if she regrets the time she spent in the convent and she says “not really because I met some wonderful people, some wonderful friends that I have to this day. And it got me out of Brooklyn!”

After leaving the church, Dottie came back to the States (her ticket paid for with the dowry she’d given the church when she went into the convent) and lived with her folks for about 5 months to save money while working in a clinic. Her parents were ok with her leaving the Maryknoll Sisters but weren’t too thrilled to find out that Bill was part of the equation because he’d been a priest. Their belief was that “once a priest, always a priest” but they did come to accept them as a couple and were happy to see their daughter get married and have children after all!

At this point, Bill had moved to San Francisco and Dottie moved there to be with him in 1970, a great time to live in the city. Dottie moved in with a couple of Maryknoll Sisters in the Mission District (one current and one former….things had loosened up quite a bit by then) and got a job at General Hospital. Bill, the philosophy major, was taking any job he could find…Penny’s, the bowling alley…until he got a job with a community organization and started his new career path. They married in 1971 and Bill moved in with Dottie in the Mission until he decided to pursue a Master’s in Community Development in Missouri. Moving to Missouri and enjoying the culturally different experience of living in the midwest, Dottie worked in the local hospital and taught in the university’s nursing program until they moved to Kansas City for Bill to do his fieldwork whereupon she got a job with Visiting Nurse. This nursing degree comes in handy! Just an aside…..I asked about “coming out” to people as a former nun/priest combo in different parts of the country. Dottie said it depends on the people “makes no difference to some people, some people find it interesting, some people are aghast.”

Now it’s back to San Francisco and the Mission District, buying a duplex with some Maryknoll friends. They picked there because it has some of the nicest weather in SF and they both speak spanish. Dottie worked at Hunter’s Point where there were lots of mothers and babies, lots of poverty but different than the poverty in Guatemala. We still have safety nets, there it’s “miles of poverty and no water.” Bill was working with Model Cities when Dottie got pregnant with Rebecca who was born in 1973. She took six months off work and wanted to go back part-time but that wasn’t an option so she and Bill decided she would go back to school part-time to get her Master’s in Family Nursing. That took two years and by the time she was finished, Jonathan was born. This time, though, she could find a part-time job and an affordable babysitter….ah, those were the days. Shortly thereafter Bill, who was working for the state, had a job opportunity in Sacramento, a place that Dottie had said “I will never live in” so they moved there but only temporarily. They left 22 years later. Turns out, Sacramento is a great place to raise children, has some really nice people and it’s interesting to live in the state capitol. She worked part time for an insurance company as well as in a nursing home until Jonathan was in the 5th grade and then worked in home health, the last ten years of her career in hospice work, her favorite job of all. Being a mom and raising kids was fully enjoyable for Dottie.. “Looking back, you see things you wish you had done differently but overall I really enjoyed being a mom. Young kids are really fun…they were only 21 months apart so it could be exasperating but basically it’s fun. It’s hard to pick a favorite age…each age is so different. The teenage years were harder with John because he didn’t like school.