Corinne Mondello Dowden has witnessed a lot in her long life and has some advice for young people: “Get educated and have a purpose in life.”
Dowden, age 101, earned a degree in home economics at Louisiana State Normal College, as Northwestern State University was then known, in 1943 and from her home in Kisatchie talked with a visitor about her student days, faculty who were special mentors and her experiences as a young teacher in small rural schools.
The oldest child of Sicilian immigrants, Dowden graduated from Natchitoches High School. She was the first person in her family to attend college, encouraged by her mother and her high school home economics teacher Ruby Dunckelman. Dunckelman would later have a long career as chair of the Department of Home Economics at Normal.
At Normal, Dowden was also a student of math professor Joe Webb, father of the late NSU President Dr. Randy Webb; chemistry professor A.L. Ducournau, who’s record book she recalled being stolen by a class prankster, and Esther Cooley, who taught food science. Her family were also friends with another Sicilian immigrant family, the Maggios, forebears of NSU President Dr. Chris Maggio.
Home economics was regarded as an important scientific discipline that required applied knowledge in chemistry, biology and other branches of science to teach health and hygiene, nutrition, food preparation, childcare, finance and home management. For many decades NSU’s home economics department maintained a practice cottage that students were required to live in and maintain for one semester, planning and serving meals for each other and invited guests. Dowden recalled an incident in which she accidentally locked the house mother out of the cottage after an event at which Dowden was a hostess.
Dowden was born July 3, 1919. Education was important to her parents. To attend Normal, she and her friends found rides to Natchitoches from Powhatan and later rode a bus driven by a Mr. Weaver. As a commuter student, Dowden didn’t participate in many extracurricular activities, but she did have a work-study job with Ora G. Williams, librarian and professor of English, repairing books in the library, which helped pay tuition.
She recalled that at one point she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue her studies and intended to resign.
“I got discouraged and you had to report to the president if you wanted to resign,” she recalled. “A.A. Fredericks was a friend of the family and he refused to let me resign.” With his encouragement and that of Mrs. Dunckelman, Dowden stayed in school.
Completing her degree during World War II, Dowdon taught at Provencal and then at Longville, a small school in Beauregard Parish that needed a home ec teacher. The principal there, Joe Mitchell, was the son of Normal’s registrar, and Dowden boarded with Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell while teaching science, chemistry and home economics at the high school.
She went from Longville to teach at Kisatchie where she met and married S.G. Dowden. After years of teaching at Kisatchie and Gorum, she retired in 1974 with 30 years of experience.
Thinking back on Normal days, Dowden also recalled her friendship with Dr. Marie Shaw Dunn, who created the Home Economics Department’s concentration in early childhood education and the Child Development Center that is named for her, and Minnie Lee Odom, another long-time home economics professor. Dowden returned to Northwestern State College to earn her master’s degree in home economics in the early 1960s. She has children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews who earned degrees from NSU.
A capable, can-do spirit is common among those who pursued degrees and careers in home economics and Dowden is no exception. She began sewing as a youngster and is regarded by her family as an excellent cook, known especially for her pies, homemade bread and coconut cake.
Dowden and her husband, who were married 49 years until his death in 1996, had three children and the family has grown to include numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Last year, she was honored with a large 100th birthday celebration, attended by extended family, friends and former students from through the decades.
When asked what attributed to such a long life, she said, “practicing good health habits, eating balanced meals and staying active. Also, take life day by day and have a positive attitude. I guess God just wanted me to live this long.”