Women's History Month profile: Engineering instructor Mildred Doherty

In recognition of Women’s History Month, the Behrend Blog (from Penn State Erie, The Behrend College) is profiling dynamic women in Penn State Behrend’s past and present. This week's subject is Mildred Doherty, the first female engineering faculty member and a gregarious woman of many interests, chief among them a deep affection for her Irish heritage.

In 1960, Mildred Doherty -- “Mid” to her friends -- arrived on a campus so thinly staffed that the infirmary nurse doubled as the bookstore manager. Doherty brought a unique skill set for a woman of her generation, having worked as a technical writer, a civilian supervisor for the U.S. Air Force, and as head of the U.S. Signal Corps’ examination and evaluation section for radar operations. But gender wasn’t an issue, according to a faculty colleague. “No one was concerned that she was a woman teaching engineering, because Mid laid down the law for her students,” Ed Masteller, professor of biology emeritus, said. “I think that was her military background. She had specific expectations about the way things should be done.”

Doherty’s all-business comportment must have been contained within Otto Behrend Science, because among her contemporaries she is universally remembered for her infectious sense of merriment, passion for travel and genealogy, and can-do attitude. “My husband and I loved her because she was a fun girl, a really fun girl,” said retired physical education instructor Irene Edwards. “She was so interesting, and just a delight to be around.”

Although Doherty lived in a small Behrend family-era cabin near what is now Lilley Library during the week, she entertained at her home in Centerville, a farmhouse originally owned by her Irish grandparents. Masteller and his wife, Marianna, would make the trip to Crawford County for picnics, potlucks, and book clubs; Mary Turner, a distant cousin of Doherty’s, says she vividly remembers a summer party that ended in fireworks.

Doherty’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration would start with Mass at Immaculate Conception Church of Mageetown. (Doherty’s mother’s family, the Magees, had founded both the church and community.) After that came the ‘tin band,’ a boisterous parade of revelers who walked back to Doherty’s home for dinner and Irish coffee. “We’d march with kettles and spoons, banging and making noise and having a great time,” Edwards said.

After her retirement, Doherty’s passions were traveling to visit family and friends and researching the genealogy of the Doherty and Magee families. She created a small museum space within Immaculate Conception to display artifacts related to the area’s early Irish Roman Catholic settlers and  cataloged and mapped the graves in the church’s cemetery, where she was buried following her death in April  1985.

More About Mildred

Born: October 7, 1909, in Franklin.

Education: 1926 graduate of Oil City High School; 1932 graduate of Saint Xavier College (now University) in Chicago with a bachelor of science in mathematics and minors in chemistry and physics.

According to Irene Edwards, Doherty said she was able to attend college only because of significant scholarship support. “She would take the bus back and forth from Oil City to Chicago. I remember her very funny stories about that. It was always an adventure, but then she was an adventurous critter.”

Continuing education: Also studied at St. Louis University, Grove City College, Clarion University and the University of Houston.

Career detour: Doherty left the U.S. Signal Corps to care for her aging parents. During that time, she worked as the librarian at Titusville High School.

A word from her niece: “Aunt Mid was the one person -- and I’ve never met another person like her -- who never said anything bad about anybody,” said Nancy Cotter, daughter of Mildred’s sister Margaret. “Never negative. No gossip. That was something I really admired about her.”

A warm send-off: For her retirement in 1970, Doherty’s Behrend colleagues bought her Centerville home’s first furnace. She threw a furnace-warming party and had all the guests sign their name on the unit.

 

Last Updated March 18, 2014