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Julia Dowdle, Mercy Hospital’s 1966 ‘Mother of the Year,’ dead at 97

The South Side native — mother of 11, grandmother of 38 and great-grandmother of eight— aced her driving test at age 96 and fought hard to ensure the pandemic would not upend her daily life.

Julia and John Dowdle in 1984.
Julia and John Dowdle in 1984.
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Julia Dowdle didn’t bat an eye when the pandemic began. The 97-year-old, who grew up during the Depression, was no stranger to sacrifice — and was determined to not let COVID-19 upend her life.

Pre-coronavirus, you could catch Mrs. Dowdle zooming through Wilmette in her silver Toyota Camry, playing bridge with friends or sending daily letters and emails to loved ones.

She loved to stay busy, so during Illinois’ first stay-home order in March, she did everything in her power to continue her daily routine and stay as independent as possible.

She moved most in-person activities, such as bridge games and check-ins with friends and family, online. Her transition to family Zoom calls went so well, she decided to use the platform to tell her family about her cancer diagnosis in June.

But even cancer, on top of the pandemic, didn’t slow her down. Mrs. Dowdle won her last bridge tournament online just 10 days before she died — and without longtime bridge partner Mary Ann Ford, who’d died about a week and a half earlier.

“She thrived in chaos. It never really bothered her. She never fretted, she just always got to the point and kept it going,” said Kathy Dowdle Mahowald, one of 11 children. “The pandemic didn’t bother her. It may have aged her a bit, but it’s aging us all.”

Mrs. Dowdle died from cancer at her home in Wilmette on Oct. 25.

Her willingness to adapt and go-with-the-flow mentality helped her succeed in life and stay independent, Mahowald said.

Most seniors stop driving 7 to 10 years before they pass away, according to an American Automobile Association study, but Mrs. Dowdle aced her last driving test at 96.

“She had a streak of independence that was innate to her. ... She was very conscious about her limits and needs, which I think has everything to do with being a Depression baby,” Mahowald said.

“She would always say ‘God knows that I don’t have very broad shoulders. So he’s never going to give me more than I can bear.’”

Born Julia Dolores McGuire on Sept. 10, 1923, in Chicago, she was raised on the South Side with her four sisters and two brothers.

When she was 9, at the peak of the Depression, her mother died, instilling in her a sense of resilience and determination. She turned to the church and was guided by nuns at Sacred Heart School, near Loyola University.

Julia Dowdle at age 17.
Julia Dowdle at age 17.
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During her teen years, she met her future husband, John Dowdle. Not long after, he enlisted in the Army and spent the next four years in Europe during World War II.

She went on to graduate from Rosemont College in Philadelphia, and they wrote to each other often. When he returned from the service, they resumed their romance, marrying in October 1947. He died in 2004.

John and Julia Dowdle on their wedding day, Oct. 4, 1947.
John and Julia Dowdle on their wedding day, Oct. 4, 1947.
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The couple settled in Wilmette in 1954 and raised all 11 of their children there. All were born at Mercy Hospital; the hospital named her “Mother of the Year” after she gave birth to her last child, Michael Dowdle, at age 43.

“The fact that she lived to 97 and lived a life full of reward is because of her deep unwavering faith in God,” Michael Dowdle said. “She really put everything in his hands. Just think about raising 11 kids, all the trips to the emergency room and years of drama. All of that, but I don’t remember ever seeing her stressed out or anxious. She was more than just ‘Mother of the Year.’”

She also made sure her kids knew they should depend on their siblings, whether she was there or not.

“She would do this thing whenever we got groceries, it was very chaotic, but we all did it and loved it. We’d line up each kid, and we’d have, let’s say, 30 cans of soup. So we would start with one can and just throw each one to the next in line, to the next and so forth until it made it to the cabinet,” said Mahowald.

“She wanted us to feel the love of our family and know that we could depend on each other, but also most importantly, knowing that God had us in his hands, too,” Michael Dowdle said.

She ended every conversation with her loved ones with three Hail Marys for a safe trip. In her memory, all her children have “3HMs” plaques.

She is survived by all 11 children: daughters Julie Dowdle Rogers, Sheila Dowdle Steger, Mary Dowdle Potts-Levine and Kathy Dowdle Mahowald and sons John, Stephen, Carey, Kevin, Richard, Denis and Michael Dowdle. Survivors also include 38 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass was held at Saints Faith Hope & Charity Church, which she attended for 66 years. She is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston.

Julia Dowdle (center) with some of her grandchildren in 2012.
Julia Dowdle (center) with some of her grandchildren in 2012.
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