Dottie Dorion is a Long Island native, born Dorothy Simpson in Floral Park, New York in 1934, but she has lived in Jacksonville for over five decades. She came here in 1971 from Puerto Rico so that her husband, George, could build a laboratory for his family’s company, Bacardi. Prior to their stint in Puerto Rico, the couple and their four children—Mark, Christopher, Timothy, and Lisanne—had lived in several other locales throughout the US.
They came here at the urging of Charlie Towers, the legendary lawyer and civic leader. For shipping purposes, Bacardi needed a body of water and a railway station. Jacksonville had both in addition to lots of reasonably priced land. At the welcoming party that Towers had insisted on, Dorion was “blown away” by the fanciness of it all—the elaborate spread, the enormous bouquets, the beehive hairdos. She realized then that even the attire was quite different in the South than anywhere else they had lived.
For their first six months in Jacksonville, the Dorions stayed at Baymeadows, which was made up of one gas station and a single housing complex. The apartments there were all one-bedroom layouts, so the Dorions rented two. Half the family lived in one apartment and half in the second.
“When we moved here, all the stores were downtown, all of them. Nothing was convenient. And our only restaurant was The River Club, but women weren’t allowed to be members there at that time,” Dorion said. She recounted lunchtimes when a curtain would cordon off a section where females could sit separate from the males. “We were segregated,” she said.
The family settled in Deerwood once their home construction was complete. Back then, the neighborhood consisted of over 10,000 acres of woods, some of it swampy, with only 25 or so houses built on dirt roads. There wasn’t a grocery store in sight. And all the lakes were loaded with alligators. Armadillos, deer, and boar pigs rambled the golf course. “It was kinda like the Wild West here,” Dorion said.
She and her husband would encounter snakes on their walks through the acreage. Their kids’ entertainment at night was hunting the grounds with flashlights and fetching golf balls from the lakes, which disconcerted Dorion, considering the abounding wildlife. On occasion, a buffalo would roam the streets, having escaped from the yard of the Davis family, the ones who eventually gave a lot of their land to Mayo Clinic.
In the 1970s, Southside Boulevard had only two lanes. It was a safe and friendly area. Dorion would bike and wave to neighbors as she rode. “There was no worry about traffic. But eventually all of that changed,” she said.
Dorion holds an active license as a graduate nurse and is co-founder of Jacksonville’s Volunteers in Medicine Clinic. She is one of the early founding members of the Hospice of Northeast Florida, recalling its humble beginnings with a table, a chair, and one file cabinet under the stairs in the Red Cross building on Riverside Avenue. Dorion has also worked at Riverside and Hope Haven Children’s Hospitals among others.
Although her registered nursing license was transferable from Puerto Rico, her teaching license was not. In 1972, Dorion began taking classes at the University of North Florida (UNF) to be re-certified in the state as a special education teacher. UNF was totally unknown at that time. The school was a single building on a dirt road in the woods. “It was another Wild West,” Dorion said. The staff was so small that the teachers were also the administrators. Today, Dorion considers some of them her friends of her, as together they had instituted the school’s athletic department in the early 80s.
While Dorion’s four children were attending Jacksonville Episcopal High School, she had the opportunity to meet parents from Ortega, St. Augustine, and other areas. But it wasn’t common in those days for ladies to mingle too far outside one’s local neighborhood. By her late 30s, Dorion had become bored with the local women’s tennis scene—she had been a ranked player when she lived in California and in Puerto Rico; so, she began running track with her youngest son of her. “That’s when I realized what a bad shape I was in. I was huffing and puffing,” she said. Dorion vowed that she would run a marathon one day.
She became involved with the Jacksonville Track Club and Fun Run events at what was then called Jacksonville Community College (JCC). She helped organize the first River Run. While working on her fitness, Dorion simultaneously worked on her career, heading a summer day camp at Jacksonville Country Day School for children with learning disabilities. She ran Kadis Learning Center in Orange Park for a time and taught at Hope Haven. She also supported her husband with his family’s business, including growing the bottling plant on Ocean Way in Northside, which began as a trailer in the woods when they first arrived in Jacksonville, one that served as a quality control laboratory.
After suffering a running injury, Dorion became an avid cyclist. She amended her vow from a marathon to a triathlon. The only issue was that she wasn’t a swimmer. So, she joined the Y in Riverside and learned in the pool there before hiring a private coach. She was over 40 when she completed her first triathlon locally in 1980, using a red 3-speed Schwinn. She was 51 when she completed the Ironman in Hawaii in 1985, placing 6th.
Dorion remained a member of the USA Triathlon Team for 17 years. She headed the World Triathlon Women’s Committee for a time and co-authored Beyond Triathlon: A Dual Memoir of Masters Women Athletes, which is currently being adapted into a documentary film.
Today, Dorion is nearly 90 years old. In addition to being a retired teacher, a former triathlete, and a nurse who still offers sports medicine consulting, Dorion is an artist. Many might recognize her from a recent exhibit she held at St. John’s Cathedral. As far as creative training, Dorion took whatever art classes she could as electives while she majored in nursing.
Dorion still resides in the same Deerwood house, and she has three grandchildren scattered throughout the country. Her husband de ella of sixty-three years succumbed to cancer in 2021. As a nurse, she had always told her kids, “If you do not have your health, you do not have anything.” Dorion misses his sense of humor from her.
She continues to live out the philosophy she shared with her husband: It’s more blessed to give than to receive. She has endowed eight scholarships at UNF, several at Columbia University School of Nursing—her alma mater of her, and a few at Williams College. There’s an established scholarship program for the children of their Bacardi employees.
She has been, and remains, involved with committees too many to mention and served on a long list of community Boards. Dorion is still passionate about trying to gain equality for women in sports. She put in much effort on Title IX issues back in the 70s and now communicates with people in decision-making positions, even in Europe, regarding the current transgender issues in sports. “We still don’t know how it’s all going to shake out,” she said. But she plans on sticking around to find out.
By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News