Katy Dolan has volunteered at the Marine Discovery Center’s Welcome Center desk since 2013.
A native of Hungary, Katy enjoys meeting guests at the center from around the world and from throughout the United States. She can speak or understand five languages and as an avid gardener, she loves talking about pollinators and the plants that sustain butterflies and bees.
Read more about Katy in MDC’s July 2021 Volunteer Spotlight interview with staff writer Lisa D. Mickey:
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in 1946 and grew up Sajolat, Hungary, which is in eastern Hungary, and then I spent four or five years in Miskolc. From third to fifth grade, I lived in Budapest.
Q: Tell us about life in Hungary.
A: I have a very small family. Most of them were killed during World War II and all of the males died in Russia. A couple of the women survived, but most of them died when their whole village was bombed. I remember riding the street cars and going to school.
Q: Did your family defect from Hungary?
A: Hungary was an Iron Curtain country, so there was a revolution and they were trying to get the Russians to leave. There were military tanks and bombings of homes. We found a little opening for us to sneak out of Hungary. Because there were land mines on the borders, you had to hire someone who knew their way around the land mines, which is what my parents did. In 1956, we took a train to Sopron, on the border of Austria and Hungary. The guide took about 15 of us in the middle of the night in December – adults and children. I was 10 at the time.
Q: What do you remember about that night?
A: I remember we walked all night and it was very muddy and cold. We got off the train in Sopron and we just kept walking. We were stopped by border guards and then they shot up a flare, trying to find us, but they didn’t know how many of us there were. They called for reinforcements, so we hid in ditches where they couldn’t see us. We just waited until they stopped shooting up flares. It was a really dark, moonless night. We just kept going until we got across the border, walking at least six or seven hours.
Q: What was it like crossing into Austria?
A: I remember we walked into a little town and there was only one light on. It was the baker and he was baking bread in the middle of the night. We went into the bakery and asked for asylum. We were not the first ones to do that, so they already had a little refuge room set up for asylum seekers. That’s where we went for the night. As it turned out, they had Hungarian refugee camps set up by the Catholic church throughout Austria, so they took us to an empty lodge. One day some priests came through and asked if any of the girls wanted to go to school in Vienna? My mom pointed to me and said, “She does!” So, they took me and I lived in a Hungarian convent. We had a Catholic mass every morning. Under the communists, you don’t have church, so you also don’t have convents. A lot of these women had escaped during the war and set up a convent in Vienna. I could still speak Hungarian there, but I could also read and write in German because I was going to an Austrian school, and because it was a Catholic school, we learned Latin. In Hungary, we had also been required to learn Russian, starting in the fifth grade.
Q: Were you preparing to become a nun?
A: They were trying to get me to do that. I thought about it for a second, but then I thought, ‘Nah, I like boys too much.’ Plus, I got in trouble because I wore my hair with bangs. That was considered just too sexy.
Q: How long were you in Austria?
A: Two years. We had applied for a visa to the United States and finally, our name came up in early 1959. My mother, father and I moved to Atlanta. My dad’s great aunt and her husband had left Hungary years earlier and they took in our family until we got settled in, giving us a place to go. I was there in Atlanta until 1967 and went to high school there. I have been 5-foot-8 since I was 13, so they put me in the high school because they assumed I was an older girl. Because of that, I skipped a grade and graduated from high school at 17.
Q: Was it a big transition to go from Europe to the Southeastern United States?
A: It was like going to heaven. When our family got to the airport in New York, I had just seen an American movie that was about heaven. In the film, the doors in heaven would open automatically. When we got to the airport in New York, the doors were opening on their own. I thought, ‘Now, I know I’m in heaven.’ I thought it was the most fabulous place in the world, and I still do.
Q: Did you feel welcome in this new land?
A: At that time where I was in Atlanta, there were no immigrants at all. Maybe I was a little different, but I had a group of friends who were welcoming to me. Our family was renting an apartment above somebody’s house and we didn’t have a lot of money, but I loved living in America.
Q: What did you do after high school?
A: I would have loved to have gone to college, but my guidance counselor didn’t tell me what kind of classes I should take to go to college, or how to get into college, or how to get a scholarship or a loan. My parents didn’t have any money and my dad had a hard time getting work because he couldn’t speak English. My mom got a job in a brassiere factory. I had a boyfriend by the time I graduated and three months later, we got married. I got a job as a keypunch operator at a department store. They were like the very first computers. The machine we used would punch holes in a card and a computer would read the cards. Every store receipt had to be inputted into the keypunch and then it would go into the computer.
Q: Did your life change once you were married and had a job?
A: I was very happy. Ralph Dolan and I were married for 18 years and we had two girls. And now I also have six grandchildren, who all live in Philadelphia! My parents never really did learn the English language, so they had a hard time. They took me everywhere with them to translate, but Ralph got a job that required us to move around. In 1967, he got a job in Miami and we moved there. I was 21.
Q: Did you also get a new job when you moved to Miami?
A: I was always good with numbers, so I got a job as an office manager and bookkeeper with a company. I worked for them for five years. Ralph got promoted and we moved back to the Atlanta area. That’s also when I got into gardening. I think that’s where my love of nature started. Up until then, I had lived in concrete jungles. I was born in the countryside, but I had always lived in a city.
Q: Where else did your family life and career take you?
A: Ralph and I got divorced in 1982 while we lived in Ohio. I moved to Pennsylvania because that’s where my parents were living by then. I had worked in banking while we lived in Georgia, but I got into group health insurance and by the end of the year, I became an agent. I worked there for 30 years with a big, successful agency that offered employees a stock interest plan. When I retired in 2010, I had to turn in my stock for a payment. That’s why I’m able to live in a nice place like New Smyrna Beach.
Q: Where did you meet current husband, Steve Baker?
A: I met him playing tennis in York, Pa. By then, I was really into nature and was taking my girls on nature hikes and we had that in common because he was a bird watcher. I married him in Costa Rica about nine years after my divorce with Ralph. The kids were about 10 and 12. I kept my last name as Dolan because that was my kids’ last name and they were still young, but Steve and I have been married for 30 years.
Q: When did you and Steve start sailing?
A: Steve was not a sailor when I met him, but we bought a canoe and did a lot of canoeing on the creeks of Pennsylvania. He was in his 50s when he got into sailing. We got a sailboat down in the Chesapeake Bay and we would go there and sail.
Q: When did you move to New Smyrna Beach?
A: I moved here in January 2013 and began volunteering a month later at MDC in February. I just came to the center and walked inside. [Former MDC staff member] Mark Spradley was here and showed me around. I asked about volunteering and he said MDC always needs help. That was two years before we had bought our house down the street. I told Mark that whenever we finally moved here, I would be back to volunteer. I’ve always been an environmentalist and I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Q: Did you move directly to New Smyrna Beach?
A: No, we went to St. Augustine, but they don’t have canals like we have here, except on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and those homes are too expensive. My first husband and I went on vacation in St. Augustine when we lived in Atlanta and we really liked it. Then Steve came along and he wanted to retire to New Zealand. We met with an attorney there, but he told us we were too old, unless we could put up several million dollars and add a new company into their economy where we would employ their citizens. I told Steve I was going to Florida. We had met a woman at a party in York, Pa., and she told us to visit New Smyrna Beach. We came down here and fell in love right away with a house on a canal. Steve’s boat is now right outside our house on the canal.
Q: How did you initially volunteer at MDC?
A: I started at the Welcome Desk, where I still work. I was in sales, so I’m used to working with the public.
Q: Have you volunteered in other places?
A: I volunteered at Planned Parenthood for two years before we moved here. I was a hand holder in a women’s clinic. I don’t think I could go through an abortion, but I believe that it’s every person’s right to decide. Nobody was ever happy about doing it. We also distributed birth control pills and devices, and helped women get examinations who couldn’t afford doctor appointments. Being concerned about the environment, I think one of the biggest problems we have is overpopulating the world.
Q: When you went from city life in Hungary to living in a place with space around you, do you remember the first time you had an impression of nature?
A: I always liked nature. When I lived in Budapest, one of the places I went was to the outskirts of the city that overlooked a soccer field. Around it was some green space where players could train. That was my favorite spot because I would occasionally see a bird or even a bunny. It was green space.
Q: Where are your two daughters?
A: They live in Philadelphia with my six grandchildren.
Q: What excites you about being a part of the MDC’s mission here with the Indian River Lagoon?
A: Everything MDC stands for is for the betterment and conservation of the environment. I really love the Marine Discovery Center and I hope it continues to thrive and do good things in the community.
Q: Among the changes you have seen here at MDC, what stands out?
A: There have been some amazing changes since I’ve been here. They reclaimed a former marsh out behind the center. I think that’s wonderful, since there is now more space for habitat and more places for wildlife.
Q: Has there been a highlight for you as an MDC volunteer?
A: Just seeing the kids every year at the camps. They are learning how important nature is and what is needed to preserve it. I think the things they are taught here are going to stay with them for the rest of their lives. Hopefully, they will become advocates for the environment.
Q: Why is volunteering important to you?
A: The community has given a lot to me in my life and in my career, so now I can give back. I think to preserve the earth and to fight climate change, everybody needs to pitch in and do something for our children. I’m also a member of the New Smyrna Beach Garden Club and I volunteer as a certifier for our Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Garden project. We encourage citizens to plant pollinator plants and plants where butterflies can lay their eggs. The process encourages people to participate and it helps the butterflies and bees, which are definitely on the decline.
Q: You have had life experiences that most Americans don’t have. What perspective do you think you bring to MDC’s Welcome Desk?
A: Having lived in Europe, I’ve seen where they have nearly used up their natural resources. Now, they are trying to conserve what little bit they have left. I look at all the resources we have here in the U.S., and we’re pretty much destroying what we have or neglecting it. I just want to tell everybody to take heed! Let’s preserve this wonderful country and stop killing our wildlife in so many different ways, including their food sources and their habitat.
Q: Have you been able to go back to Hungary since you left?
A: My husband Steve had to practically force me to go back because I had such bad memories of Hungary, but he told me I needed to go back to see my home land. After 50 years, I have returned twice. Hungary is still hurting and their infrastructure is in bad shape, but the people, the music and the food are all good.
Q: What do you want to pass on to your six grandchildren?
A: I talk to them about the environment all the time when I’m with them. We spend most of our time together outside. I think if you have a love of nature, you’re going to be more careful with it and you’re going to love it more. You’re going to preserve what you love.