CAPT DOROTHY STRATTON REMEMBERED: Her Life and Legacy

CAPT Dorothy C. Stratton, USCG SPAR. USCG Photo. .

Editor’s Note: In a departure from our regular News Feature format, this month’s story is a personal retrospective about Coast Guard CAPT Dorothy C. Stratton, first director of the Coast Guard SPARs during World War II. CAPT Stratton passed away on Sept. 17, 2006, at the age of 107.

She’s been called a pioneer, a legend—but for a brief 20 years, I called her friend.

Without a doubt, much will be written chronicling the life and work of CAPT Dorothy Stratton, best known for her service as the first director of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARs) during WWII. All would agree that she leaves behind an enormous legacy, but CAPT Stratton wasn’t terribly concerned with being known as a pioneer or a legend. No, she simply wanted to leave the world a better place and she wanted to know the people she met along the way. Although the life and career of CAPT Stratton were nothing short of extraordinary, there’s another side–a personal side–to her legacy that was equally important to those of us who were lucky enough to know her.

I first learned of this military icon when I was in boot camp at Cape May, NJ, in 1985. At that time, I knew little of her life or her Coast Guard career; but I did know that she was one of the women who paved the way for me to serve my country.

That brief introduction sparked my interest in the SPARs and the woman who led them. Over the next couple of years, I learned about many of the things that made CAPT Stratton a remarkable leader. Born in rural Brookfield, MO, in 1899; CAPT Stratton earned her bachelor’s degree the same year women got the vote. Ambitious and brilliant, she pressed on in pursuit of advanced degrees at a time when a college education was anything but fashionable for women. In 1933, with a doctorate in hand, she became Purdue University’s first dean of women and an associate professor of psychology. During her tenure, the enrollment of women increased from 500 to more than 1,400, three women’s residents’ halls were built and a liberal science program for women was inaugurated.

In the early 1940s, when our nation was confronted with the reality of another world war, she answered her country’s call to serve. A woman trustee at Purdue told her, “Dorothy you can’t afford to do this,” and she replied, “I can’t afford not to.” In 1942, she joined the WAVES and within months of receiving her commission, she was summoned to Washington, DC. She was sworn in as the first director of the newly created Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, making her the first woman in Coast Guard history to serve as an officer. At her urging, the Coast Guard adopted a name for the members of the Women’s Reserve–SPARs–from the service’s Latin motto and its English translation, Semper Paratus, Always Ready. During her four years as SPAR director, she led a force of 10,000 enlisted women and 1,000 women officers. At war’s end, the SPARs were demobilized and CAPT Stratton was awarded the Legion of Merit for her service.

Though her military career ended in 1946, CAPT Stratton’s service to the nation and the community continued. From 1946-50, she served as director of personnel for the International Monetary Fund; and, in 1950, she became the national executive director of the Girl Scouts of America, a position she held until 1960.

Another 27 years would pass before I would know CAPT Stratton and it was worth the wait. In the mid-1980s, during preparations for a SPAR reunion in New London, CT, I contacted her to coordinate the temporary loan of her SPAR uniform for display. Any nervousness I felt before talking with this Coast Guard legend soon vanished when we began to chat like we were old friends.

We stayed in touch long after that SPAR reunion, much to my surprise. After all, I was 65 years her junior and served four decades after she had left the Coast Guard; but CAPT Stratton chose to invest her time, to invest herself in a young Coast Guard seaman. Humble and always interested in others, CAPT Stratton spoke little of her own life. She wanted to know about mine, how I was doing, how I balanced work and marriage, and what the Coast Guard was like for young women of my era. Our phone calls soon turned into letters that followed me through every promotion and PCS move. A prolific letter writer, CAPT Stratton spoke freely of her thoughts on life, the military, women and current events. I will always remember her keen mind and her quick wit, as well as her love of life and the service in which she served so briefly. I met my friend in person only once, when I attended the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the SPARs in 1992. It was good to finally put a face to a name; and our letters continued.

Within a few years, I left the Coast Guard and CAPT Stratton encouraged me to welcome the challenges ahead. Just as she had during my Coast Guard years, she encouraged me to reach beyond everything I thought possible for my life. I remember her saying, “You have much to do in this life, Robbie. Do it all.”

After I left the service, our letters continued and now they must end. I don’t claim to have known her well. Just knowing her as I did was enough. From her, I learned this: It’s important to remember those who came before us for they are our history; and it’s vital to look ahead to those that follow us for they are key to leaving the world a better place. Indeed, she did much to earn the distinctions as a pioneer and a legend, but I will most remember the gift of her time, as this was her personal legacy to me. I think she would have wanted it this way.

CAPT Stratton, your Coast Guard will never forget you—Semper Paratus.

Fair winds and following seas my friend,
Robbie Fee-Thomson
Public Affairs Specialist First Class, USCG, 1985-1994

On Oct. 1, national ensigns flew at half-mast at Coast Guard units around the globe, to honor the legacy of CAPT Stratton. That day, she was buried near her long-time home in W. Lafayette, IN, in a private family service. Donations may be made to your favorite charity in CAPT Stratton’s memory. Donations may also be made to the Dorothy C. Stratton NROTC Scholarship Fund, c/o the Purdue University Foundation, Schleman Hall, Room 204, 4755 Stadium Mall DR, West Lafayette, IN 47907. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, DC, is planning a memorial service for CAPT Stratton in the coming months.

View the Feature Story Archive