Dollie Cole – Enthusiast – 2019 Corvette Hall of Fame
“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power.”
When Anne Cole Pierce first read those words she immediately thought of her own mother, Dollie Cole. “My mother was truly a force of nature,” Anne recalls. “When she was drawn to a cause, she didn’t just help with her checkbook, she got involved, and got her friends involved, too. She gave her all and inspired those around her to do the same. She made things happen.”
While the world at large first came to know Dollie as the wife of Edward N. Cole, President of General Motors, she wasn’t the kind of automobile executive wife to let that be the one thing that defined her. Colorful, beautiful, driven and outspoken, she truly did live life to the fullest, building up a resume of accomplishments that included: accredited test driver and pilot, Senior Editor for a publishing company, author, television host, and she was even a model in print ads for Dr. Pepper. She could work out in the barn all day, and step into the most elite social situation without missing a beat. She was engaging and comfortable with anyone she met regardless of their station in life. She made it a point to make people feel valued whether it be an underprivileged child, the elevator operator, a Hollywood celebrity, top race car drivers, powerful business icons, or even the President of the United States. They all mattered to her, especially those who were defenseless–mainly children and animals. It would be the goal of her life to use her resources, abilities, time and energy to help them rather than looking for ways to be entertained.
This is probably because of her upbringing. She was born Dollie Ann Fechner on May 13, 1930, in Fort Worth, Texas. Her parents divorced when she was just six weeks old, which led to a childhood spent living with various relatives. When it came time to go to college, she focused her studies on providing therapy for people with mental disabilities. “She knew what it was like to be helpless,” Anne remembers. “She was so grateful for what God had given her that she wanted to give back in a very meaningful way.”
She married Ed Cole in 1964 and found in him her perfect match in every way. She once said that intelligence is the most attractive feature that a man could have, and that Ed Cole was the most attractive man she had ever met. Anne remembers their days together fondly. “My dad loved a challenge, and she kept him interested. They both hunted, they were both great shots, she could fly an airplane, she liked driving fast cars, she was interested in automobiles, and she was smart, sharp and interesting. My dad was so smart, and his brain was so fast, that he really needed someone like my mom who was all of that too. They were perfect for each other.”
Dollie would want us to pause here and remind everyone that Ed was the engineer and father of GM’s Small Block V8 engine–the same engine that would find its way into the engine bay of the Corvette. Over 100 million of them have been produced in the many decades since, providing 100 million examples of just how smart Ed Cole really was.
Dollie admired him for his work ethic too. She joked that when they were married they should have been pronounced “man and wife and briefcase.” She often said that he was the guy who turned on the lights at GM. She was proud of him for that too.
During his time as President of GM, Ed had his work cut out for him. The auto industry, and the Chevrolet Corvair in particular, were under attack by consumer groups led by activist Ralph Nader. When things got especially ugly, Dollie got involved in a way that only Dollie could.
“My mother called in to The Phil Donahue Show as it was airing live, as his guest was bad mouthing the auto industry,” Anne recalls. “After figuring out that she really was who she said she was, they put her on live and she gave the guy his money’s worth. How many people would have the guts to call into a live talk show, with no preparation, and still have the poise and presence of mind to take a stand?”
“I have to give my Dad tremendous credit,” Anne laughs. “When he came home that night he just smiled at her and said something like, ‘So how was your day Dollie? I heard you were busy.’ She said it was fine and he replied, ‘That’s not what the PR department said.’”
Donahue was so impressed with Dollie’s boldness, that he moved his show to Detroit for a week and had Dollie on as a guest. He later hosted a debate between Nader and Ed Cole that many feel that Ed won.
“She was very proud and supportive of my dad and she wanted to make him proud of what she accomplished. She didn’t want to embarrass him, but she was who she was. She didn’t believe in being seen but not heard. She spoke often and women’s organizations talking about having a voice, making a difference, getting involved and not being passive. Her way was not the way of corporate America’s wives. To her, silence was not golden. She felt that silence is what happens when one doesn’t care enough to speak out.”
Ed retired from GM in 1974, and tragically died at the age of 67 on May 2, 1977, when his airplane went down in a storm. This left Dollie alone to protect his legacy and care for his children. Dollie wouldn’t let him down.
Dollie and Ed’s youngest son, Nick, agrees. “Mom was always 100% mom too. I remember whenever she got on a mission though, she’d ‘get her Dollie on’ and we knew what was coming. She became ‘General Dollie’ and we’d all snap to attention, but that was okay. She inspired us all to want to help others and taught us the value of working hard and being the best, we could be. It meant something to us to be there to help her make a difference.”
One example of that was her work for the Pegasus School for Boys. This is a school for boys who had been removed from their homes by the state because of parents who may have had drug problems or legal issues of some kind. Dollie got involved and gave land to them and got her friends to donate enough money to build buildings and get a magnet school started. There were 90 boys there, so when she’d go to auctions, she’d buy 90 of everything–90 pairs of shoes, 90 pairs of boots, 90 pairs of jeans, and so on.
Anne remembers how hard Dollie would work too. “When Mom would do charity events, she would do the flower arrangements, and get people to do the invitations. She wouldn’t farm it out if she could do it in a way that could get more of that money going into the charity.”
As if she didn’t have enough going on, Dollie served on several boards, such as PBS, Project HOPE (World Health Organization), The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, National Captioning Institute for the Hearing Impaired, National Academy of Sciences Presidents’ Circle, and the 100 Club of Central Texas, a charitable organization established to support the families of officers killed in the line of duty. She also served on the board of the newly formed National Corvette Museum.
“Mom was a cheerleader for the Corvette,” Nick says proudly. “She knew that car was a big part of my Dad’s legacy, which is one of the reasons that she loved it so much. That’s why she got involved with the Museum. When the Museum was struggling, she had a key role in turning it from what it was to what it is.”
Wendell Strode agrees. “I met Dollie in 1997, just after being hired as the Executive Director of the Museum. This was a critical time for us. The Museum was in default on its loan to the banks, and foreclosure appeared to be imminent. We needed change, and Dollie was the board member for this new era. As her leadership skills became obvious to everyone, she was elected to serve as Chairman of the Board. Her favorite reminder to all of us was to ‘check your egos at the door.’ She was there fighting for what needed to be done.”
“She was a leader in deed as well as word. She attended many shows and club meetings to speak on behalf of the Museum. She hosted fundraiser events at her Ranch to benefit the Museum. And on more than one occasion, Dollie wrote a check to the Museum so that we could be involved in some activity that would make us more visible locally and nationally. Dollie was instrumental in turning the Museum around and helping to lay the foundation for the success we enjoy today.”
Dollie passed away on August 24, 2014, leaving behind her children, William Jefferson McVey, III, Anne Cole Pierce, Esq., Robert Michael Joseph Cole and Edward Nicholas Cole, Jr., as well as a grateful family of Corvette enthusiasts who will always be in her debt.
When asked for a final thought about his mom going into the Hall of Fame, Nick paused.
“She loved being a part of the Museum and being the wife of the President of General Motors—a man who had been part of the Corvette from virtually the beginning. It was important for my mom to promote him and the Corvette, so that history wouldn’t forget. I remember seeing her talk with every Corvette owner at a show. She’d spend all day and all evening long with them. Corvette wasn’t a brand to her though. It was my dad. Being a part of the Museum and the Corvette community was one of her ways of staying connected to him, and she did the best job that she could to represent him. He would expect nothing less from her, and she could do nothing less for him. Having them both together in the Corvette Hall of Fame is fitting, and something we’re all very proud to see.”