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Humans of Drake: Professor Dorothy Pisarski

Highlighting the stories of Drake students and faculty.


Within the first few minutes of meeting with associate professor of advertising Dorothy Pisarski, she confirmed what other students had already told me about her:

“My life is filled with interesting things.”

Among those things are the following roles: daughter of Polish immigrants, soccer referee, up-and-coming Super Bowl volunteer, multi-linguist, wife of a stroke survivor and daughter of a Nazi concentration camp survivor.

And that only scratches the surface.

While growing up in a Polish enclave in Brooklyn, New York, Pisarski didn’t even speak the English language until she started formal schooling.

Before immigrating to America, her father survived Majdanek, a concentration camp in Eastern Poland. He was what would be considered a student athlete, so he was placed into work detail due to his physical fitness. His strong physique, Pisarski said, saved his life.

“He wasn’t so strong when he got out, but he got out, and he survived,” Pisarski said.

When her parents arrived in the U.S., they worked hard to make ends meet, but Pisarski remembers being a child in a household and community that weren’t well-off.

“As a matter of fact, we were pretty poor,” Pisarski said. “I didn’t get new clothes very often. When I grew out of clothes, I would get somebody else’s hand-me-downs. My parents were very good at stretching every penny that we had.”

The only exceptions were related to her family’s devout Catholicism. Pisarski remembers receiving a brand new dress for both her First Communion and her Confirmation.

A major landmark of her young life occurred when she received a full scholarship to an all-female, private, Catholic high school.

“That was the first awakening that I didn’t have to be the fancy girl with lots of things and be in style in order to do well,” Pisarski said. “So it was the first marker for me that I could succeed and do something.”

From there, it was a long stretch of “trailblazing,” as Pisarski recalls, through college and her first career. Her field, management and marketing, was considered a bit outside the box for someone like her.

“In the era that I grew up in, girls didn’t have careers,” said Pisarski. “So as a little girl, my options were secretary, nurse, schoolteacher. If you lived on the edge, flight attendant.”

Eventually, her innate love of teaching and her creative thinking methods led her to Drake University and advertising.

The skill of stretching pennies taken from her parents proved useful for Pisarski when, 10 years ago, her husband suffered and survived a major stroke. Their household income, she said, was diminished by 70 percent.

But that wasn’t their only battle. It took weeks for her husband to even be able to speak again, much less say the names of his loved ones.

“We literally started with the alphabet,” Pisarski said. “We had to learn everything over again.”

He is permanently disabled, but with patience and hard work, Pisarski and her son have helped him reach his current point of progress, at which he can type text messages and make small talk. As a result of his father’s journey, Pisarski’s son chose to go to school for speech therapy.

Pisarski grew up watching her father play soccer, so the love of sports has always coursed through her veins. She learned the rules of the game just by being there, and that knowledge carried her to the day her five-year-old son began the sport.

At her son’s games, she was the one explaining all the rules to the other parents, and this garnered the referee’s attention. She was approached and asked if she wanted to be a referee herself.

And as we’ve seen thus far, Pisarski isn’t one to turn down an opportunity.

Along with refereeing on the weekends, Pisarski was recently accepted as a volunteer for this year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After completing an application and going through an in-person interview, she was accepted onto what is called Crew 52.

“Being the daughter of a concentration camp survivor, there’s a lot of literature actually right now that talks about my generation and the moral responsibility you feel in a lot of different ways,” Pisarski said. “And one of the ways … is that I cherish every day, every opportunity. I still feel like I want to immerse myself 100 percent into things, and I still feel like I want to try everything. I don’t need a bucket list because I’ve been living that way all my life. I want to see things and do things and just live with opportunity, and not that opportunity is given to me, but that I grab it.”

Despite her plethora of extracurriculars, she still finds time for relaxation.

“I have to have flower gardens. That’s my zen place. That’s my place of peace. But otherwise, I’m not domestic,” said Pisarski with a laugh.

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