Anne Cole Pierce recalls her mother, the late Dollie Ann Cole, a legendary Fort Worth-bred persona who lived her life as a mother, wife and matriarch with grace and wit. She conquered the social world with her verve and beauty…here’s one more memory for Dollie’s Memory Jar
Photography courtesy of General Motors Photographic, Edward Noble, Walter Daran, Louis Schaumacher, J. M. Dentler, Bob Scott, Dominic J. Palazzolo, Tony Spina, and Will Van Overbeek
My mother, Dollie Ann Cole, was the real deal – an outspoken, stylish, “kick-ass” Texas woman – who, in the 1960s and 1970s, shattered the image in the American auto industry, of the quiet, “stay-in-the-background” corporate executive wife. On Mother’s Day in 2011, I gave her a “Jar of Memories” with a story to commemorate each year with her. Her marriage to Edward Cole, the highly respected engineer and president of General Motors, is well known. Her family life was every bit as interesting. Here I share some of my favorite personal memories of her. One more memory for Dollie’s “Memory Jar.”
Memories Are Made Of This
Mom was a stunningly beautiful woman. Along with her considerable intellect, drive and determination, she used her talents and gifts to succeed in the world, as well as to give back in gratitude for the amazing life with which she had been blessed. Born in Fort Worth in 1930, her parents divorced when she was an infant, and as a result, she was shuttled between relatives’ homes. Because of that, she decided early on that she was going to work hard and lead a life that made a difference. She resolved to give back by getting involved in organizations that protected the helpless, mostly children and animals, and she accomplished her goals, becoming Vice-Chairman of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, Chairman of the National Corvette Museum, a Member of the Boards of PBS, Project Hope (World Health Organization), The National Captioning Institute for the Hearing Impaired, The 100 Club of Central Texas, and a Senior Editor of Curtis Publishing’s Saturday Evening Post. So deep were her commitments and humanitarian efforts, she was nominated in 1974 by Ladies Home Journal as one of the ten most important women of the year. She lived a very full life before passing away in 2014 at the age of 84.
My mother’s interests were varied and she wasn’t afraid to “reach for the stars and drive the cars.” She loved automobiles and in 1972 became the first woman to ride in the Pace Car at the Indianapolis 500 and was also the first woman to drive the Pace Car at Talladega and Daytona. She married Edward N. Cole, after being seated with him at a dinner in Washington, D.C. Dad later became the President of General Motors Corporation. Fate would work in Dollie’s favor throughout her charmed life. She often said that “smart was the most attractive quality in a man” and that dad was the most attractive man she had ever met. He was recognized as one of the automotive greats, holding more important patents at G.M. than any other person when he retired in 1974. He was called the “father” of the small block Chevy V8, was the moving force behind the Corvair and, along with Harley Earl, Zora Arkus-Duntov and Bill Mitchell, was an essential architect of the Corvette. My parents made a dynamic team.
Dollie was equally at home with heads of corporate America, political leaders, blue jeaned ranchers, and the glittering Jet Set of the era. She was a regular at the jewelry auctions held by Gaston and Sheehan for the U.S. Marshall’s Service all over the country, and she was also well known at the heavy equipment auctions which she regularly attended throughout Texas. One of her favorites, Anton’s Auctions in Lockhart, “retired” her No.1 paddle upon her death. Mom loved a bargain. She loved all types of auctions, garage sales, resale shops and sales. She often quipped, “Any fool can pay retail.” Once, after quietly outbidding a couple of big Texas ranchers on some heavy equipment, one asked about the diminutive older woman in her black jeans and boots. “Who is that woman?” The other auction regular simply replied, “That’s Miss Dollie. You don’t mess with Miss Dollie.”
She left a sprawling estate in Lockhart, the 1,100 acre Briarpatch Ranch, filled with treasures from all over the world. My three siblings, Jeff, Joe, Nick and I, remember a lifetime of memories on the ranch and beyond, of an amazing, elegant, startlingly lovely woman with unlimited energy, natural charisma, a deep compassion for others, and a “black belt” in shopping. As stated by one reporter friend, “Dollie was totally committed to the business of living.”
In the 1970s when one of Ralph Nader’s strong supporters was on the Phil Donahue Show criticizing General Motors, Mom cold called the live show and carved up the critic on the air. When Dad got home that night, he simply said; “Heard you had a busy day Dollie.” That phone call resulted in Dad later debating Ralph Nader on the Donahue show, a debate most believe Dad won. Dollie admitted, “The strongest muscle in my body is my mouth. My way is not the way of corporate president’s wives. Silence is not golden. Silence is when one doesn’t care enough to speak out. That’s what’s wrong with the world.” That call and its aftermath also resulted in Mom being invited to guest on such shows as Lou Gordon, ShowTime, Stand Up and Cheer, Firing Line, The Today Show with Barbara Walters, The Morning Show, and AM Detroit. Sometimes dubbed the “Detroit local version of Martha Mitchell,” she inspired charity and no small amount of controversy.
Yet those whose lives she changed viewed her as a fairy godmother. She would humbly demur, saying her role was just to “light fires.” As Kent Hanert, then Assistant Principal of Franklin School, a Detroit inner city elementary school that Dollie “adopted” in the 1970s, stated, “I’ve never met anybody like Mrs. Cole before. She came in here like a dynamo and things have been happening ever since.” This tradition continued in Texas when she donated 110 acres to The Pegasus School for Boys, and expanded the school with donations from herself and her friends, like Barron Hilton of Hilton Hotels, the late Rick Bowen of East Aurora, New York, Carolyn and Tav Lupton of Coca Cola bottling fame, and Caroline Hunt of Dallas.
Dollie was indeed quite outspoken; and she wasn’t afraid to put it in writing, too. She wrote Ted Koppel in June of 1991 when he did a segment about the auto industry leaders she thought was unfairly slanted. She said that she though it was a “blatant, unfair attack on the U.S. auto industry” and “was without honesty, value or merit” and that they, referring to those leaders, “are such fine gentlemen that they didn’t tell you to go to hell.” Lee Iacocca wrote her when he saw it saying, “No one can ever accuse you of not telling it like it is.” Mr. Poling of Ford also stated to her in a letter, “I would have loved to have been in the same room as Mr. Koppel as he read your letter, although I’m not sure he would have enjoyed it as much as I did.” As one of Dollie’s friends once said, “This talkative, talked-about woman casts a spell over you. This is a woman who could charm a fish out of water.” She did things most people would shy away from doing with guts and style.
Before Edward Cole was killed flying his private plane to work on May 2, 1977, near Kalamazoo, Michigan, he had become the Chairman of Checker Motors Corporation after retiring from General Motors. Mom was devastated; they had been an especially close couple. She called him “the president of the house as well as in the office.” Upon his death, Former President Richard Nixon wrote stating that, “of the many business and political leaders I have met over the past 30 years, he was one of the finest in every way. You can take comfort in the fact that he was always so proud of your devotion to him.” Likewise, President Gerald R. Ford wrote, “Ed was a truly great person, one of the outstanding industrialists in our nation but also one of the most dedicated patriots for all that is good about America.”
We worried about how she would go on after his death. Mom, in the face of such loss, made it a mission to keep his memory alive, by speaking at many automotive-related events, and creating a rich, new life for herself in Texas, raising horses and cattle, and by getting involved in both local and national charities, giving back, in gratitude for her many blessings and in Dad’s memory.
Mom loved to entertain on a grand scale and was famous for her parties, attended by close friends who were luminaries then and now such as Jim Nabors, Ruth Buzzi, Florence Henderson, Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt, Ruta Lee, and Andy Griffith. She once rented the Michigan State Fair Coliseum and threw a rodeo bash surprise birthday party for Dad that went down in Detroit history as “The Party.” Dollie said, “I have never laughed so hard, or had as much fun, as I did at that party.” She gave a launch party for Apollo 15 on July 25, 1971 in Cape Canaveral, Florida and later received a card from astronaut Al Worden who had flown on that mission to the moon, “Thanks for the best send-off of the year.”
Dollie’s parties at the Briarpatch Ranch were also of legend. Guests were often greeted by costumed riders on horseback lining the long drive, all carrying flags, who would spin the horses in circles in unison. She owned several fire engines, which spouted cross geysers of water in the backyard as skydivers landed in the backyard. Guests arrived in their own planes and helicopters. In fact, Dollie’s invitations came with cards indicating the length of the private runways nearby and jet service company numbers. They dined on Chisholm Trail’s world famous barbecue from Lockhart and enjoyed the beauty of Texas sunsets to the sound of the Fossils. At one party, Debbie Reynolds even jumped out of a wooden cake Ruth Buzzi had made, to sing Happy Birthday to Jim Nabors, Dollie’s best friend and long time pal. Said Nabors, “There was no one like Dollie. Never was. Never will be again.”
In 1977 when I was 23 and in law school, Mom asked me if I would donate a day and work at Beau Jacks, a restaurant in Michigan, helping to serve meals to inner city children for a charity event hosted by football giant Dick “Night Train” Lane. That day while I worked doing dishes in back, and Mom, along with other Detroit celebrities, served the kids, Joe Pfetzer, a Cadillac executive, came into the restaurant, saw Mom and invited us both to attend a party he and his wife were hosting. I declined, but that night Mom met Karlton W. Pierce, Jr. and told him, “have I got the girl for you.” Mom came home that night, and despite the fact I was asleep, a rarity for anyone in law school, woke me up and announced, “I have met the man of your dreams.” Although he was divorced with custody of three kids – I told her then, that was not the man of my dreams – like usual, she turned out to be right. I married Karlton on July 21, 1979 and a bunch of kids later, we just celebrated our 36th anniversary. It’s been a lifetime of valentines for me, and many times it was thanks to my mother.
Since she passed away last year, our family has been trying to come to terms with the loss of the person who was the center of our lives, the center of attention, the center of any room into which she walked. Trying to dismantle her collection of things resulted in one of the largest estate sales in Central Texas, taking almost a year to organize and stretching over three months. It covered thousands of items from all over the world. Through it all, Mom remained at the “center” for each of us, as well as so many of her friends who never failed to regale the family with some new story.
Friends of the family flew to Texas from as far away as the Netherlands to help with the sales. One last time, the Briarpatch Ranch was bedecked as a testament to Dollie’s shopping talents and the legacy of two amazing people. Artifacts from their storied lives were sold and dispersed to the four winds. Shortly, papers and memorabilia will also be sent to the Bentley Museum at the University of Michigan. Among friends from far and wide who came and helped at the sale were judges, a former Michigan Supreme Court Justice, heads of businesses and foundations, volunteers from the Settlement Home for Children and The 100 Club of Central Texas. That these people came from all over the world to help the family at a time that was so hard was a true tribute to an incredible woman and the legacy she left behind. It was one more memory for Dollie’s Memory Jar. And it was one she would have really loved because they don’t make them like Dollie Cole anymore.