After he graduated from University of the South with an undergraduate degree in biology, Tom Dolan was unsure what to do next. His roommate’s father helped him get a job at Davison’s, an Atlanta department store owned by Macy’s, and from 1973 to 1977 he moved up the ranks in management.
The money was good, but the hours were brutal. From mid-October to Christmas, Thanksgiving was his only day off, and 16-hour days were common.
Dolan’s father used to tell him that you can either do something you like or make a lot of money. Or, if you’re lucky, you can make a lot of money and do something you like.
“I was making a lot of money, but it was a killer job,” Dolan said. So he chose the other option: “I’m going to do something I like.”
He chose to go back to school at the University of Georgia and study botany. And now, four decades after making that decision and 33 years after he joined the Butler Biology faculty, he is retiring.
The decision to go back to school was easy. Getting accepted to graduate school was a different matter. Dolan, who grew up outside Chicago in Geneva, Illinois, had been out of college for six years when he applied to Georgia. The pharmacy school told him no. Botany, which was an up-and-coming program, invited him for an interview.
He remembers the head of the committee asking, “So what makes you think you can handle graduate school based on what you’ve been doing for the last six years?” Dolan responded, “I just walked away from managing a store that did $15 million a year in sales and had 100 people working for me. I know how to do things. I know how to get things done. I was a biology major. I would really like to do botany. I think I’ll be fine.”
Two weeks later, he received a letter saying he would not be admitted regular status, but if he wanted to take classes as a non-classified post-graduate, he could do that. Essentially, they wanted proof that he could succeed—and they wanted him to spend his own money to prove it.
Challenge accepted. The first quarter, he did well in all three classes. His Cell Biology professor—who was the department chair—offered him “regular status” admission and a teaching assistantship.
“It turned out that I liked teaching,” Dolan said, “and it turned out that I was pretty good at it, based on the response that I got from people who were in the class and the people who were supervising the teaching assistants.”
He finished his doctorate at Georgia (where he met his wife, Becky, who also earned her doctorate from the University of Georgia) and went on to a post-doctoral fellowship in plant pathology at the University of California, Riverside.
When the time came to find a full-time job, Dolan answered an ad for a Visiting Assistant Professor at Butler. He took the one-year assignment and then won the full-time, tenure-track position after that.
At the same time, Becky was hired at the Holcomb Research Institute (HRI) and Friesner Herbarium. When HRI folded, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Paul Yu transferred her staff position to the Department of Biological Sciences. For more than 30 years, she has been Director of the Friesner Herbarium, a systematic collection of over 100,000 dried, pressed and preserved plant specimens.
“Becky was able to carve out a niche and has turned out to be very successful—as an academic, more successful than me,” Dolan said. “She’s had a much bigger imprint on the institution than I’ll ever have.”
In the 1990s, Dolan served as Chair of the Biological Sciences Department. Stuart Glennan, Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, said Dolan’s appointment came “at a very crucial time for the department. Probably most importantly, he oversaw the hiring and mentoring of the current generation of leadership in the department, and managed it during a time in which its student population expanded considerably.”
Dolan said that during his 33 years at Butler, he saw the University grow in stature and size. The constant, he said, has been the quality of the students.
“We always had good students,” he said. “Now we have more of them. Some of the students I’ve had contact with would bowl you over. That’s always been the case. Virtually every semester, every class has two, three, four, five students who just knock your socks off.”
Michael Hole was one of those.
“Professor Dolan was the first person I met at Butler,” Hole said via email from Texas, where he is now a pediatrician and social entrepreneur at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School. “From that moment, he used his brilliant mind, big heart, and humor to make learning fun and meaningful. A treasured mentor and friend, he oozed the Butler Way. There’s no doubt his legacy lives on in countless Bulldogs.
In retirement, he and Becky plan to spend most of the year living in a house they built on St. George Island, a pristine and quiet locale in the Florida panhandle. The Apalachicola Natural Forest is across the way, and for 30 miles west, 45 miles east, and 60 miles deep, there’s nothing but state and national forest. Some, he said, consider it the No. 1 biological hotspot in North America.
Across the bridge from their island is the new Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, so they’ll be a short drive from scientific research, natural resource management, and environmental education. The Dolans also are thinking about ways to enhance science programming at the local high school, and Tom said Becky may well do some science writing.
“The punch line is that I really don’t know,” he said. “The other side of that is, I’m really not worried about it. But I’m definitely not going to just put my feet up, read, fish, and run kayaks—although that’s a temptation.”
Marc Allan MFA ’18