“I’m not going to tell you any secrets,” says Molly Dobson with a smile, as I ask if it’s okay to record our interview. Dobson, who went from a casual mom volunteer to one of Ann Arbor’s most significant philanthropists, is used to being interviewed.
“The imprint of Molly Dobson is everywhere in our community,” WLBY’s Lucy Ann Lance declared when they talked about her ninety-ninth birthday in February. It’s not hyperbole.
“If Molly hadn’t invested in us early on, we wouldn’t be here today,” says Neutral Zone director Lori Roddy. Cheryl Elliott, former executive director of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, recalls that she “was one of our first major donors to invest.”
But then, “she was at the beginning of a lot of things,” Elliott continues. “She was instrumental in launching the Women’s City Club [now the Ann Arbor City Club]. She was an early supporter of Packard Health.” At Washtenaw Community College, “she gave funding to get the childcare center going.”
Says Dobson, “I decided a long time ago that my focus would be local and female. That doesn’t close the door on everything else.”
In her spacious apartment in the Meadows at Glacier Hills, Dobson wears a striking peach sweater over narrow burgundy pants. There’s a walker in the room, but she maneuvers short distances on her own. Paintings, many by local artists, adorn the walls.
Dobson maintains a certain formal quality, but quickly puts people at ease. “She’s just so warm and encouraging,” Roddy says. A good listener and a thoughtful talker, she doesn’t dwell on some topics, like not seeing her son Steve and his wife, Judy, both locals, for six months during Covid’s harshest phases.
“We keep adjusting,” she says, recalling how the words impressed her when she first heard them from a seriously ill friend.
“You adjust or you’re in trouble.”
By the time we talk, things are looking up: she’s looking forward to after-dinner cocktails with “my four buddies on the third floor.”
Dobson’s family (she was the middle of three) moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor in 1936, when she was fourteen. Her dad, Laurin Hunter, was an executive for the White Star Refining Company, owned by his uncle H.B. Earhart, of Earhart Mansion fame. (The mansion is now owned by Concordia University.)
She enjoyed University High, but, at her mother’s insistence, resentfully transferred to Walnut Hill—the Massachusetts boarding school known as a feeder for Wellesley College, Delia Hunter’s alma mater. Molly, too, started at Wellesley, but transferred to U-M as a junior to rejoin her close friends. She graduated in 1944.
Challenged by a question from her dad about what she planned to do for her country, she immediately joined the Navy—and got several of her sorority sisters to sign up as well. It was the start, she reflects, of looking more seriously at life.
After a year in D.C. doing radio coding, she married University High classmate Bill Dobson. Their first home was in Pittsfield Village, where she collected
donations for the Humane Society. While raising daughter Hillary and sons Steve and Peter—first on Hermitage and then in a new house she and Bill built on Geddes—she went door to door for causes like the March of Dimes. When women said their husbands “gave at the office,” she responded, “Don’t you have a purse?” Startled, most gave something.
In politics and charity, she and Bill were in sync. He was a passionate Republican determined to show that private enterprise can work for the powerless. He fought a local rent control initiative in 1988—then raised close to $1 million for affordable housing.
Though strongly pro-choice, Dobson continues to identify as a Republican—which didn’t stop her from developing friendships with civic-minded Democrats like the late Jean Campbell, founding director of what is now the U-M’s Center for the Education of Women; Dobson has endowed CEW scholarships for women returning to school.
The couple’s philanthropy gained new power in 1961, the year Bill invested $10,000 in a limited partnership stock fund run by a newcomer named Warren Buffett. They later were early investors in Berkshire Hathaway, the company that made Buffett an investing superstar.
Bill and his brother Jack, a former Republican city councilmember, put their Berkshire Hathaway earnings into charity. “It allowed us to do things we couldn’t have dreamed of before,” Jack told the Observer in a 2000 interview—by “things” he meant good causes, not yachts.
Financial good fortune was no protection from personal losses. In 1972, Peter, who’d just turned twenty-one, died in an automobile accident.
Struggling with the loss, Dobson once had to pull her car off the road to weep. In what she describes as “one of those strange, unknown moments … a sentence came through: ‘Molly, you are not in charge.’ Which was a great comfort. I could start on a new chapter.”
She started another in 2000, when Hillary, the mother of three young adults, died of breast cancer. Dobson’s eventual donations to Ele’s Place, which helps children who’ve lost a parent, were inspired in part by the grief of her grandchildren. Peter loved the natural world, and the Peter Dobson Fund, administered through the Community Foundation, has donated more than $200,000 to environmental causes.
Bill died in 2003. By now, almost all of their Greatest Generation peers are also gone. But, she insists, “I’ve been very blessed.” She’s grateful that her philanthropy continues to deepen her ties to the city and bring younger people (like the Neutral Zone’s Roddy) into her life.
Asked if she thinks about turning 100, her answer is succinct: “I’m curious,” she says. She’d rather talk about a program she helped get off the ground a decade ago, the U-M Development Summer Internship Program. “D-SIP” gives students paid internships to learn development and fundraising.
How does someone find a new cause in late life? Simple, Dobson says: a U-M-connected friend contacted her and said, “I have a program that’s just made for you.”
It didn’t take much persuasion.