Dorothy Stratton’s birthday celebration serves as a reminder of her lasting impact at Purdue

Updated: Feb. 26, 2023

pictured: photo of former purdue deans walking on a grassy lawn

Born on March 24, 1899, to Rev. Richard Stratton and Anna Stratton, Dorothy Stratton’s childhood involved constantly moving across the Midwest with her family, eventually settling in Kansas where young Stratton began her higher education at Ottawa University.

After completing her undergraduate studies, Stratton pursued advanced degrees at Northwestern University, the University of Washington, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of California Berkeley. During this time, Stratton also began teaching, sharing what she had learned from her life and empowering other women. Stratton eventually earned a Master of Arts from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in student personnel administration from Columbia University.

Betty Nelson, Dean of Students emerita and a good friend of Stratton, remarked on her passion for knowledge: “Dorothy was a scholar — she loved to read. She diligently read the New York Times every day, and her intellectual curiosity followed her for the entirety of her life. When Dorothy moved to West Lafayette, she brought her collection of favorite books, and she didn’t just have them for show. Dorothy had read every one of them.”

Stratton came to Purdue University in 1933, accepting the position as the first full-time Dean of Women. During her tenure, Stratton worked to boost female enrollment by introducing experimental curricula beyond home economics. Stratton also established the university’s first women’s employment placement center to ensure graduates had a plan after college.

Pictured: painting of dorothy stratton unveiled at the vmsc dedication

Pictured: Painting of Dorothy Stratton unveiled at the 2023 VMSC dedication ceremony

During her tenure at Purdue, Stratton increased female enrollment from 400 to 1,500 women. But in 1942, she decided it was her patriotic duty to take a leave of absence from the university and join the military during World War II.

Stratton continued her work empowering women by heading the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve program, making history again as the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Coast Guard. Stratton named the reserve program “SPARs,” pulling from the Coast Guard’s motto and its English translation “Semper Paratus: Always Ready.”

As the director of SPARs, Stratton worked tirelessly to recruit women to join the Coast Guard, mirroring her earlier success at Purdue. Stratton’s moving leadership and acceptance of all women, regardless of race, resulted in a significant increase in recruits for SPARs. As a result of her work, Stratton rose through the ranks, earning the title of Captain.

When she retired from the Coast Guard in 1946, over 10,000 women had enlisted and more than 1,000 had become commissioned officers. Stratton was awarded the Legion of Merit “as a brilliant organizer and administrator … contributing to the successful prosecution of the war.” Subsequently, Stratton served as personnel director for the International Monetary Fund and as executive director of the Girl Scouts of America.

In 1985, Stratton returned to West Lafayette and reunited with friends and former colleagues, including Nelson.

“Dorothy was a giant in a small package. I remember thinking when we would walk together that she was taller than I and a lot of that had to do with the way she carried herself,” Nelson reflected. “Looking back at photos, I see now that I actually was the taller one, but it never felt that way.”

Stratton passed away in 2006 at the age of 107, but her legacy continues to live on in those she inspired. Today, the Dorothy C. Stratton Veteran and Military Success Center (VMSC) is continuing Stratton’s legacy by supporting military-connected students with wrap-around services. To learn more about Stratton and Purdue’s veteran services, please visit the VMSC website.

Read about the VMSC Renaming and Dedication
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