Feature Story

URI's First Lady

URI's first lady gives back to the university

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In her senior year of college, Reverend Lynn Baker-Dooley went on a blind date while visiting her sister in California. After returning to school in Kansas, she kept in touch with her date, writing letters for a year before they saw each other again. “Waiting for each other’s letters is really how our relationship developed,” she remembers. Thirty-five years of marriage later, Lynn and her husband, David Dooley, the 11th president of the University of Rhode Island, have settled into the next phase of their journey. For Lynn, it has been a chance to jump into roles that are both familiar as well as unique to her.

When the Dooleys took up residence in the President’s House at URI in 2009, they were coming from a valley in Montana that is the same size as the entire state of Rhode Island. While there, Lynn was a hospital chaplain for hospice and palliative care. Before that, she pastored First Baptist Bozeman church for ten years. “I just had the 30th anniversary of my ordination,” she says. “Since my senior year in high school, I knew this is what I was called to do.” She was the second woman ordained in the Pioneer Valley Baptist Association in Massachusetts and was leading a church by the time she was 26-years-old. “Dave has always been so supportive of me. When I was pastoring in rural Massachusetts, he commuted from the parsonage into Amherst for three years,” she remembers.

When she came to Rhode Island, Lynn expected to continue in the ministry. Although she was not able to find a chaplaincy position, she has been able to forge new roles to express her calling. “There’s always some place you can serve,” she says. “It may not be where other people want to serve, but there are always needs to meet.”

Over the past four years, Lynn’s mission has not changed. Through her commitment to volunteer service work and her willingness to take on causes that reflect her values, Lynn has been an integral part of expressing President Dooley’s vision for the university. “Some of Dave’s priorities are my priorities: diversity, service, hospitality. We’ve always lived in university and college towns. We’ve always been involved with students. It’s who we are,” she explains.

Lynn has played a central role in the hospitality that has come to characterize the President’s House. “When they wrote into Dave’s contract that we live in the house; it didn’t bother us because we wanted to. I think it does make a difference to have the president living on campus.” Lynn and President Dooley live on the second and third floors of the house, while the first floor and basement are used for university functions and entertaining.

Lynn has been instrumental in implementing an “open house” policy for the residence. “It’s not a private residence in any sense,” she explains. “It’s a public building. It’s a front door to the university in a lot of ways. I feel an obligation that the house is a university building and it should be open for events.” Last year, there were nearly 70 catered events hosted at the President’s House, including committee meetings, faculty and staff open houses and student events. “I can say with confidence that the entire URI community has been invited to the house!” says Lynn.

Shortly after the Dooleys took up residence, at Lynn’s suggestion, a call was put out for faculty and staff to submit artwork to decorate the residence. “We ended up taking it all!” she says, laughing. Now she proudly showcases a rotating collection of remarkable art made by the URI community. Another of her suggestions was to put a basketball hoop in the parking lot adjacent to the house. “There’s a parking lot there and it was empty all night, so I said why shouldn’t students be able to come shoot hoops? It’s a good use of the space,” remembers Lynn.

Interaction with students is one of the Dooleys’ favorite parts of their new life. During Hurricane Sandy last year, they ended up hosting several displaced URI students on the floor of their family room for several nights. They’ve also forged some particularly strong bonds with the students who work for Dining Services, catering the events held at the residence. “Our students are doing a lot to get through school,” says Lynn. “I also worked full-time while going through school. They start to feel like family because they are here so often. We just had our first graduating class! I feel like we started as freshmen too with them four years ago.”

Lynn spends a large portion of her time volunteering within the URI community and beyond. “Because I didn’t find a job right away, I filled my life with volunteering,” she says. Her first year on campus, she started the Friends of Women’s Athletics Committee, which hosts the fundraiser Grapes and Grain on the second Saturday of June. “We’ve doubled each year!” she says proudly. Over the past four years, over $135,000 has been raised to support Women’s Athletics at URI. It’s been such a success that to commemorate Lynn’s involvement, URI Women’s Rowing recently named a boat after her, christening it with her nickname: Bakerdoo.

She is also the honorary chair of URI’s Habitat for Humanity committee. “When they asked me to join, I told them I don’t really do honorary,” she says. “I am hands-on!” Lynn has been central in getting the Old North Village building project on the east side of campus going. So far two of four planned houses are completed and occupied. The groundbreaking for the third, a “Home for a Hero,” was scheduled for September 28 to coincide with URI Military Day.

“It’s amazing how much URI has done for this project,” says Lynn. To support the Old North Village project, which also includes funding for houses in Haiti and Chile, URI has raised a total of $178,375.35. “We’ve had so much student involvement,” she says proudly. Many student groups have helped with raising funds and with the actual building process.

To Lynn, this is really what sets URI apart. “I think that our students do a lot more community service than I’ve ever experienced on a campus before. It just restores so much hope for me. It is wonderful to see how much they care about each other and the community around them. The Habitat project is just one of hundreds of service projects they do on this campus.”

In many ways, Lynn’s work with Habitat for Humanity at URI encapsulates her values. It brings students and the community together to serve. She fondly recalls the gingerbread house fundraiser held last year for the North Village project. A group of students were set up in the dining room of the President’s House, constructing gingerbread houses. “We ran out of vanilla wafers for the siding,” Lynn says, “so at 9:30 at night, we had to send Dave out to the store to get more! These are the things I will remember from our time here.”