First Coast Success: Artist, philanthropist, athlete: Dorion stays on track

Dorion paints regularly and donates some works to fundraisers.
Dorion paints regularly and donates some works to fundraisers.
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Dottie Dorion invests in creating and sustaining health, beauty and fitness.

On the health side, the Columbia University School of Nursing graduate is co-founder of the Volunteers in Medicine clinic in Jacksonville. She also helped start Community Hospice of Northeast Florida.

On the fitness side, she has traveled extensively to compete in swimming and triathlons. She represented the USA Triathlon and the International Triathlon Union. The University of North Florida features the Dottie Dorion Fitness Center.

Dorion, 80, also is a competitive rower and won her age group two years ago in the World Indoor Rowing Championship in Boston.

Then, there’s the beauty side. Dorion paints it. Her primary mediums are acrylic and oil and she has displayed her works throughout several venues including the St. Augustine Art Association and the Riverside Arts Festival. She also donates her works to raise funds for Volunteers in Medicine and other organizations.

Dorothy Simpson Dorion and her husband of 57 years, George Dorion, have lived in Jacksonville for more than 40 years. They have four children and three grandchildren. Her website describes her as an artist, humanitarian, athlete and educator.

You work out. You run, you swim, you row, and you participated in the Ironman triathlons in Hawaii. Were you always athletic?

You might say that in my early years, I was more hyperactive and very creative. I have a twin brother and together, we could do just about anything. I followed in my brother’s footsteps as much as I could, to be active and compete in everything that was available.

We grew up on Long Island and we did have a lot of country opportunities. We could bike and we were free to run. We didn’t worry about security and the neighborhood was very watchful of everything we did. If we did anything wrong, they told our parents immediately.

Did you always want to be a nurse?

Growing up, my mother was very compassionate and caring. We always had animals and birds with broken wings or one thing or another, and I think I developed some qualities there. But, you know, growing up, I only had an opportunity to be one of three things: a nurse, a teacher or a secretary, so nursing was my first choice and teaching was my second. I did become a special education teacher.

One of your hallmark developments in Jacksonville would be Volunteers in Medicine. How did that come about?

I heard about it first when I did a kayak race for charity on Hilton Head and the charity turned out to be Volunteers in Medicine and the more I heard about it up there, I said we really need that in Jacksonville. We want to have a clinic for the uninsured, the working uninsured.

Then I met Dr. Jim Burt at a social function and he had just retired. That was a wonderful meeting of the minds.

For me it was another opportunity because when I graduated from nursing school. I had planned to be a missionary, so I feel that some of the volunteer work I’ve done is missionary work. This is a free, quality-care medical opportunity for the working uninsured.

We had a lot of obstacles to overcome to renovate a building Downtown, to get liability coverage for our physicians, to get up and running.

Now we have about 500 patients a month and 230 volunteers, nurses, doctors and laypeople. It’s very rewarding work and especially helping these people who continue to fall between the cracks of the health care system.

Another of your passions is Community Hospice of Northeast Florida. Talk about your involvement.

When I was in nursing school, we had patients that were dying, we knew they were dying, but they couldn’t tell them the truth. They could not give them the pain medication that they needed, the families couldn’t visit them except on visiting hours, and so forth. They couldn’t take care of end-of-life affairs.

That was in the ‘50s and it wasn’t until the late ‘70s that I heard about the hospice concept and I thought it was amazing. I found the answer to what hospice, end-of-life care, could be without pain, with family, with all that was needed to make things comfortable for the patient and the family.

We began that in the late ‘70s. We also had a very restrictive regional hospice law. We took a year off and a group of us founders went back and changed that law because it was so restrictive.

That was a big challenge and we also went to (Washington) D.C. to get into the reimbursement system because we knew that hospice, in the future, couldn’t remain an all-volunteer operation.

When we started it, people didn’t know how to pronounce it, so they called it “hoe – spice.” Everybody knows hospice today. Every family has either used it, or been affected by it, and I used it myself with my dad.

You and George have been married 57 years and he is a chemist and an environmental consultant, and he has been a long-distance runner. How did you meet?

It’s a fun story because he picked me out of a photograph from a friend of mine in nursing school that was dating his best friend in college, and then he claimed that he only picked me out because he liked my legs.

I eventually did meet him on a blind date. Blind dates do work out.

Do you have any advice for couples?

When you have the basic philosophy and psychology and the compassion and love, I think that it’s really important to have a sense of humor. My husband has a wonderful sense of humor. I think that saved us from a lot of situations where you can see some humor in them, even though the situation isn’t what you want it to be.

What brought you to Jacksonville?

We came to Jacksonville from Puerto Rico and my husband was transferred here to establish the Bacardi (rum) company. It’s in the Northside and it was nothing but land when we got there. He first built laboratories for the company all over the world and now it’s a marvelous bottling facility with hundreds of employees.

We are very proud for what it has done for Jacksonville and for what Jacksonville has done for us.

You were inducted into the UNF Athletic Hall of Fame for your contributions to the Athletic Women of Northeast Florida, and that includes your endowment of the Dottie Dorion Fitness Center at UNF in 1995. What prompted you to do that?

We were fortunate to be out there the first year. I think it was 1972 and I was a student out there, getting certification in special education.

In the ‘80s, we started organizing the first varsity club and we became more involved in athletics. The fitness center really started with a little closet with two pieces of equipment and a table and a little red wagon, which we pulled the supplies (in) and the athletic trainer used for all her equipment.

We felt that there was a tremendous need and great opportunity for growth in athletics in the right direction, making sure there was equality for women on all the teams and we would be in compliance with Title IX. That was a very big challenge.

I established endowments because I didn’t have the opportunity to participate as a young girl, even in high school. We only got coaches that were left over from the boys. There were a lot of sports we couldn’t do. Basketball, you play half a court, and heaven help if you even thought of running on a track.

I want to make opportunities available for women who had not otherwise had the opportunity because it does help to have a scholarship.

You run regularly?

I work out every day. Some people say I’m obsessed, but when I look at the alternative, it doesn’t look good.

I always say that you have the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of your life and you combine them and be well-rounded. Staying fit and in shape and eating healthy and all those things are, of course, very important.

You also paint. and say your paintings fall into three general genres: abstract, landscapes and alternative visions. What inspired you?

I come from an artistic family. My mom was very talented in art and my twin brother was a graphic designer, but I always loved to paint and I never really had the time.

I came to Jacksonville and I got back into art classes and started painting again. I had always taken electives in college, when I could, in art, but that was few and far between.

I started painting with my art teacher and I’ve been able to do that here with two absolutely outstanding teachers. I love it because it’s a challenge and every day is different.

You never really make a mistake. You just correct or redo or repaint over it, and it’s nice to have different challenges.

No one believes that I sit down quietly and paint, but you don’t really. You get endorphins, like you get running, so you just keep going and you get in that zone and you just keep painting and time flies by.

You very involved in the community philanthropically. What guides your giving?

We’ve always believed that it’s more blessed to give than to receive and we’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to do that in many different areas in the city. What goes around comes around and we get so many good things back.

It’s so rewarding. You see a need and then you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to meet that need, and that’s the challenge. There are plenty of them in Jacksonville. Even though we do well in many areas, there are always other opportunities to give not only of yourself, but your time and your talents and your money.

What motivates you?

I get up and I think, what positive thing am I going to do today, and when I’m with the grandchildren, I always say today is a big day.

They tell me, you say that every day and I say yes, because every day is a big day and there are so many opportunities and good things that can be done. I just think about my day that way.

What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?

There are a lot of challenges in life, but I like to live by the golden rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. My challenge is to accept the people that do otherwise and you’re always trying to improve yourself and be more tolerant. That is something I try to improve upon. It is always a challenge.

You’ve been in the city for a long time. What advice or observations do you have for our city leaders and others who guide Jacksonville’s future?

There are so many issues and challenges facing the city today and we really appreciate when we get an honest appraisal and good communications on the real issues.

We don’t want solutions just for political purposes; we want them for the good of the

citizens that live here in Jacksonville.

That is a goal, but sometimes we get sidetracked. There are many challenges facing us, whether it’s Downtown, or the cruise industry, and all the others. Of course education is probably No. 1 on my list, being an educator.

I’m sure that working together, honestly, without their own individual agendas, that we will continue to accomplish great things in this city.

Have you lived in Deerwood Country Club the entire time you’ve been here? Were you one of the first families?

We have. We’re pretty much one of the very early families. We don’t have alligators in our backyard and a few other things have changed, but it’s a great place to live.

What else would you like to share?

You have to have a real fortitude and perseverance to pursue some things because when I thought about doing an IronMan, it seemed so impossible, so overwhelming, to think of doing that distance, and I broke it down into small pieces.

My biggest problem what that I had to learn to swim to do the Ironman in Hawaii and because I could run and bike, you just think you can automatically swim, but you realize there is no connection.

Swimming is all technique and I struggled and struggled. I almost drowned in my first little triathlon in 1980 and I was determined that I would learn how to swim and eventually, I set some swim records.

I took one year off and all I did was swim 5,000 to 10,000 yards a day. Out of all my sports, swimming is what I am most proud of because it’s very hard.

I started doing Ironman after 40 and that’s not easy to put in the time and the distance and everything else, and I’ve continued to work as a nurse or a teacher. You have to make time to put in the training. Consistency is probably the mark of greatness, so I’m trying to be consistent in everything I do.

Do you swim every day?

I try to alternate. I do weights, I row and I like to do yoga or Pilates, so it’s not just one sport. That way you won’t get bored. You want to keep it interesting and fun and I try to do things with other classes like spinning, so you’re doing social things as well.

What’s next for you?

I always have a bucket list and I do want to get back into rowing. It will do that this year because now, at 80, I’m in a new age group, so I’m very excited about that. In a new age group, you get inspired to do it more.

I think I’ll do a couple of little sprint triathlons and I’d love to kayak. Maybe I’ll do a little mountain climbing as well.

Where do you find your inspiration?

My parents lived into old age and they were very fit and very active mentally and physically and spiritually and that’s very important. You learn a lot from your parents.

There are a lot of challenges that are still here that I can do. It’s kind of never ending. You finish one thing and then you see the opportunity to do something else.

It’s like painting. You paint one thing and then you see another that may be a little different, so you have to paint that too. I’d love to be able to share time with our family, that’s always my first priority.

About First Coast Success

The Daily Record interviewed Dorion for “First Coast Success,” a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross.

The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and will replay at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at



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