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A Global Network
Our Alumni Association was founded in 1923 by some of the University’s earliest graduates. Their goal nearly a century ago remains ours today: to foster a community of alumni connected to our alma mater and to each other.
Untold Stories: Webster Women Speak
This documentary features stories of four notable Webster University alumnae: Sheila Baxter, Gaby Deimeke, Mary Alice “Mickey” Dwyer-Dobbin and Susan Perabo. Webster Chancellor Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble guides the conversations with each woman, discussing the impact a Webster education has had on their successful career paths.
[Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble, Webster University Chancellor, PhD]
Webster University’s story has compelled for more than a century: a small Catholic college for women that has grown into an independent, coeducational, global university. Our founders’ mission of meeting an unmet need continues as we welcome an increasingly diverse student population here in Webster Groves and at locations around the world. Many Webster students were and still are the first in their families to graduate from college. Many were and still are women.
It is the stories of four such alumni that we will hear — how these women came to Webster, the transformative power of their Webster education, and their tremendous impact. They make us proud. And they fuel our commitment to continue to be a community that supports women’s learning and leading.
I am honored to share these conversations with you. Whether these women were playing intercollegiate baseball, publishing best-selling short stories and novels, photographing some of the most famous performers in the world, pioneering network television production, or leading medical commands for the U. S. Army, their stories need to be told. And their stories are not finished.
First, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Webster graduate, Susan Perabo, who is recognized in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That is right — a woman who gained notice in Cooperstown. She is also a published author and started learning her craft inside Webster’s historic Pearson House. Of Susan’s collection of short stories, the L.A. Times said Susan is a “true natural who delivers tough miracles with seemingly effortless grace.” Susan’s experience at Webster gave her the opportunity to live out a childhood dream and discover some new dreams along the way.
[Susan Perabo, Webster University Alumna]
I’m Susan Perabo. I graduated from Webster in 1989 with a degree in English, with an emphasis in creative writing.
Accidentally, I ended up being the first woman to play NCAA baseball
I loved baseball most — of all the sports — from a very early age. By the time I was six or seven years old, I loved baseball more than I loved anything else in the world. I dreamed of playing baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals when I was a kid, and I dreamed of being the first woman Major League Baseball player.
I kind of put that dream behind me because now I was 17 years old. I had an unusual educational path. I dropped out of high school and got my GED.
I told my folks I was interested in Webster, and my mother called the admissions office. And the woman in the admissions office said, “People come to Webster by many different paths, and we will make it work.”
And I thought of Webster as a place for the arts, and a place for writing and film and music. But it had not occurred to me that I would play sports at Webster.
One day, I was going to the cafeteria for dinner, and I saw a sign that said baseball meeting, and I was like, oh, a baseball team!
And so I went to the tryouts, and I made the team.
They welcomed me onto the team, and I went to every practice. I was often the first person there and the last to leave. I was just so happy to be able to play baseball. I had spent my whole life wanting to play organized baseball, and I got my first opportunity in college, which was crazy.
And I got to do it with a bunch of really great, funny, supportive, wonderful guys. And that was a dream come true.
It was never for me something that was about making a statement or saying something about women’s rights or about women’s place in baseball or sports, in general. I just wanted to play baseball. Having a plaque at the Hall of Fame that made note of that, that was just all gravy.
[Stroble] What is it about Webster that’s attractive to women of all different varieties of goals and dreams and professions?
[Perabo] Well, I discovered while I was here that I was a writer and that was not something I knew when I arrived. I came in as a film major and then I did some screenwriting and thought, oh, this is the part of film I really like. I took a fiction class and then I was like, oh, this is it. This is it.
Then I had my second creative writing class with David Clewell, and David was the one who said, "This is something you can do. This is something you can be.”
And so that I knew by the time I graduated that I wanted to get an MFA in creative writing. When I went to graduate school, what I discovered was that I wasn’t just going to teach to support my writing, that I really also had a passion for teaching and loved it.
So, it wasn’t a question anymore of, well, I have to do this. It was, I get to do both.
[Stroble] How do you think about, what is success for you across the writing you’ve already done and where you’re headed?
[Perabo] The most exciting and rewarding moments and experiences I have associated with writing — is writing, the actual writing itself. I’m happy to publish books, so I don’t take that for granted at all, but the work itself has always been the best reward. Loving the thing itself, loving the experience, whether it’s taking grounders or writing stories, that’s what it’s about.
This was a place I could come and feel comfortable and be myself and be whatever I wanted to be. I could be a baseball player. I could be a writer.
I got to realize a dream that I had since I was a child, which could not have been realized in any other way, at any other place
I’m a Gorlok forever. I can’t help it.
[Stroble] Sheila Baxter served in the U.S. Army for 30 years, rising to the rank of Brigadier General – the first woman and second African American person to hold that rank in the Medical Service Corps. General Baxter was once named by Newsweek magazine as one of the most powerful women in America. Her leadership skills have been an asset to Webster, having served on the Board of Trustees. Despite her accolades and honors, she is still working to educate herself and help others. And doing so with grace and humility.
[Brigadier General Sheila Baxter, Webster Alumna]
I am Brigadier General Sheila Baxter. I graduated from Webster University in 1984 with a master's degree in health services management.
I studied it at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Webster University, at that time, had a satellite program.
I grew up in Franklin, Virginia. My parents, John and Mary, who are deceased now, they taught us the value of faith, education and public service.
My mother was a nurse. My father served in the Korean War and my uncles, as well.
Sports was really my passion early on. That's all I wanted to do. The cousins and my brothers would play basketball in the backyard. And so, friends would come from the neighborhood, and it was just a community game. I picked up the game, learned it, played in elementary a little bit in elementary, middle school, high school and on to college. I did get a small scholarship for basketball at Virginia State University.
And I learned so many skills from being an athlete, from discipline to goal setting
In college as a junior, my roommate, my cousin, she was married to an army officer and he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Her husband, he was a captain. He showed me around. I saw soldiers walking, you know, in uniform, in cadence.
I saw the military as a team sport. And I was taken by that. The light bulb came on and said, you know what? I said to myself, I can do this. So, I went back that same year and joined ROTC, which is a reserve officer Training Corps.
[Stroble] How did you come to Webster?
[Baxter] They offered a master's degree in health services management. It was perfect; it was on post. And I enrolled. It was 1982 and I went to school at night. And it was a seminal moment for me.
[Stroble] Yes, talk about that.
[Stroble] What doors opened for you after your Webster degree and how did your career develop through being a brigadier general?
[Baxter] Because it was the foundation that taught me how important it is for the administration of a hospital to the medical mission. I was able to be promoted “below the zone” in the military, which is a year ahead of your peers.
[Stroble] Getting the master's degree at Webster that gave you that advantage?
[Baxter] Absolutely. And because for me, it helped me to understand that Webster was forward thinking in the 80s by putting those programs on post and installations to help soldiers.
My area of concentration was medical logistics, making sure that the docs nurses had all of the supplies they needed. So, it's not just setting up hospitals, it is equipping the hospitals with the necessary supplies and equipment that they needed to accomplish the mission.
I was in Desert Storm in Iraq. It was dangerous because we're at war, but we were focused. We worked together as a team and we accomplished the mission. I was stationed at Fort Detrick, Maryland and I received a call from the surgeon general for my promotion to Brigadier General. I was completely silent. I was overwhelmed.
Those are accomplishments, and I'm proud of them. I had a pastor who always said to me, the higher you go, the humbler you should become. And that stuck with me.
What I'm most proud of is the 30 years of serving soldiers. And it was 30 years of amazing journey, traveling all over the world, leading soldiers.
And I’m just a little girl from Franklin, Virginia and my story is any other little girl’s story across this country. You can do what you want to do.
[Stroble] Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, or Mickey, as we know, studied at Webster in the 1960s when it was Webster College. One of Mickey’s favorite memories from her days at Webster is the day she and her fellow students learned that Conrad Hilton would fund the construction of the performing arts center we know as the Webster University Loretto-Hilton Center [gesture to background]. A visionary among Webster alumni, she honors the legacy of our founders through her service — particularly, as a former trustee, her generous scholarship support, and the lifelong connections she maintains and creates with fellow alumni.
[Mary Alice “Mickey” Dwyer-Dobbing, Webster Alumna]
I graduated from Webster College in 1963. It was all women and most of our professors were indeed nuns. And that’s what drew me to Webster, the Sisters of Loretto and the speech and drama department.
The sisters did indeed create a community. They were intelligent, independent, forward-thinking women. And those were the qualities they instilled in us.
[Stroble ] So can you think of examples where that instinct that they had in their educational commitment to create independent-thinking women?
[Dwyer-Dobbin] One of my favorite examples is an address that Sister Jacqueline Grennan Wexler gave to the student body. In this particular address, she said to us that the future of Webster was really up to us, that once we got out of Webster, we needed to stay connected and we needed to continue to support Webster in any way that we could.
The nuns told us girls that we could do anything we wanted to do. We could be anything we wanted to be. And somewhere that was in the back of my head.
One of the classes I had taken at Webster was just one semester in television production. I learned early on that my talent did not lie on the stage, but rather behind the scenes.
And so I said to myself, theaters can be dark, but a television has so many hours in the day, filling hours with shows so there must be more career opportunities.
I went to New York on a sort of job-hunting vacation expedition. Indeed, I started with some very low-level jobs. I had the title of assistant to the producer, but it was really a gopher, a glorified gopher.
My first job at ABC was in daytime programming and then in children’s programming. And it was at a time when the network was trying to promote women into middle management opportunities. And so, I hit it at just the right time. Then just started moving onward and upward and beyond.
I was always ambitious, wanting more and wanting new opportunities and also believing in myself, which is something I think I got here at Webster.
I certainly enjoyed my career in television production behind the scenes, primarily in soap operas. The soap opera world was indeed a soap opera. And keeping all those balls balanced from morning to night was challenging. And I think I managed to do that with grace and intelligence and fairness.
People were nice enough to open the door for me when I was knocking on the door. And so, I'm always willing to open the door for somebody else. One of the things I have always tried to do is support Webster students.
When my class of ‘63 celebrated our 50th anniversary years ago, we had all been so close to the Sisters of Loretto that I spearheaded a movement to underwrite a scholarship for a Fine Arts student in honor of the Sisters of Loretto.
[Stroble] What is it about Webster that uniquely sort of equips women to be strong career women, strong people of service, strong people of character with a global view?
[Dwyer-Dobbin] I think the secret sauce is the people who teach. My era was moved by these strong, independent, free spirits who were the Sisters of Loretto. And I think we were encouraged to be the same.
The mission was to serve the underserved, to serve the women who could not necessarily get to college, higher education. Subsequently, with the expansion of Webster to worldwide campuses, it’s still fulfilling that same mission.
[Stroble] If you visit our main campus in Webster Groves, you will see this statue of our beloved mascot, the Gorlok. It is part of the legacy our next alum, Gaby Deimeke. Gaby helped spearhead the fundraising campaign that created the statue. Gaby made a permanent mark on our campus as a student leader. And now she is establishing her reputation in the photography industry as a global creator of distinctive images as she photographs some of the most famous musicians in the world today.
[Deimeke] I graduated from Webster in 2016 with a BA in Photography. I grew up on a small farm, really out in the middle of nowhere. The closest town was 30 minutes away. For my parents, they were like, it’s going to make more sense for us to home school you.
They were always encouraging me to be creative and try new pursuits. I got my first camera when I was like 11 or 12. I would take my camera everywhere with me. I love how when I was taking photos of other people, I could really capture their personality and characteristics in the image.
And then when it became time to go to college, I sat down with my parents and they’re like, do you want to do photography? Is that something you want to study? And I had the most supportive parents ever.
My parents wanted something that was in Missouri, that was just a couple of hours away, that they felt like they were close enough that they could be there for me, but I could also experience living in a big city because that was something, growing up on a farm, I had always wanted.
Webster opened my eyes to all of the opportunities I could do in communications and in photography. I felt like I got lucky with so many professors who were willing to go out of their way to really mentor us
[Stroble] It’s not every student that studies abroad or does it during their sophomore year. And so, talk a little bit about that.
[Deimeke] I had never been to Europe before. I had never traveled 8 hours on a plane before that. It was very formative for me. It really opened my eyes to all the opportunities in the world, all the places I wanted to travel, all the people and cultures I wanted to learn about.
[Stroble] I think that part of the message to anybody who will hear this and see your story is that you don’t have to be advanced in age or career to be making a difference for sure.
[Deimeke] I was the first in my family to finish college, first college student. I didn’t know anybody in the photography, art, music industry. The fact that I could go take everything I learned from Webster and then have a career in the industry, it’s a testament to everything I learned on the journey.
[Deimeke] My life now is a little bit crazy. I’m kind of jet-setting all the time, flying to different countries, working with celebrities and musicians and photographing them behind the scenes, their concerts, music festivals. I just got to go to the World Cup in Qatar. I did a tour in South America. We just did a couple of festivals in the Netherlands, Italy, Romania, yeah, all over.
Concert photography is actually really difficult. The lighting is changing all the time. Colors are changing. You really have to be creative in how you make the lighting work and also still showcase the personality and character of whomever you’re shooting.
There’s still a big divide in the music industry in terms of gender disparity. But that’s why I want to keep doing it, to keep raising awareness and keep getting more women involved in the music industry.
My advice to aspiring photographers would definitely be to put yourself out there, not being afraid or nervous to put your photos into the world.
My biggest goal was to be published in Vogue. I took photos of Paris Fashion Week, and it was published in an article. I thought, that would never happen. And then it did happen. I literally made this happen by working hard and continuing to do my craft.
So if it could happen for me, a girl who grew up on a farm in Missouri, it could definitely happen for anybody.
[Stroble] As these women recounted their Webster stories, I hope you recalled elements of your own story — how this community has created pathways for women to learn, to lead and to provide opportunities for others by meeting unmet needs.
Each of us has a Webster story, and that is true for me as well. Like many, I am the first in my immediate family to graduate from college. Strong women in my family and community created opportunities for me and provided role models for me. My mother, who completed one year of junior college in the 1940s and later returned to employment as a bank teller, subsequently retired from the First National Bank of Lockport, Illinois, as the president of the bank.
As I began my career as a high school teacher in Vandalia, Illinois, I lived next door to a remarkable woman who was a retired English teacher, published author and leader of many local arts and history initiatives. Mary Burtschi, Class of 1933 Webster College. I wrote her biography and never forgot her singular story even as my ambitions took me to earn a PhD, pursue a career in higher education, and ultimately seek a presidency of my own.
Many years later, Webster’s story compelled me to interview at Webster. And from there my Webster story grew, beginning with the February day that my appointment was announced, and I received a congratulatory call from Jacqueline Grennan Wexler. I felt called to this community by the power of Webster women. And now it is my honor to share the untold stories of so many Webster women in full confidence that the opportunity created by the Sisters of Loretto in 1915 continues to soar.
It is up to all of us to assure that Webster women like Susan, Sheila, Mickey and Gaby and so many others continue to learn and lead. I invite you to join me as we together support the Women of Webster.
“Untold Stories: Webster Women Speak” premiered to a live audience on Oct. 2 during a kickoff celebration of giving society, Women of Webster, launched in March to raise funding for scholarships for transfer students from community colleges, the Gorloks Now! emergency fund and women’s athletics travel funds. Learn more at webster.edu/giving.
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