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Sheila Dolan ’81 connects with her Satellite Sisters

By Michelle M. Murphy

Satellite SistersLike many adult siblings, the five Dolan sisters used to have a hard time keeping up with each other. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to; it was just that with careers, families and geography—they lived in four different cities on two continents—it was tough to find time for regular, unhurried, satisfying conversation.

Not any more. For the past two years, these five women—Julie, Liz, Sheila, Monica and Lian Dolan—have been getting together, so to speak, for an hour each week—an hour that’s part family reunion, part high-tech conference call, part talk show. They’re no longer just the Dolan sisters, chatting in anonymity. Now, to thousands of devoted fans, they’re the Satellite Sisters, hosts of one of National Public Radio’s most popular new programs.

“The sharp wit, humor and empathy that the Dolans share fills each program with laughter, even while the sisters are considering some fairly serious topics,” says Laura Walker, president of WNYC Radio.

The format of Satellite Sisters is straightforward: From New York, Bangkok, Pasadena, and Portland, Ore., each Dolan sister calls in by telephone for an hour of live, unscripted (but loosely planned) conversation that ranges from the mountains to the molehills of everyday life—from breast cancer or managing finances after divorce, to the proper technique for melon-balling or for escaping from a boring gourmet group.

Their nickname comes, of course, from the technology needed to connect them all, and the bloodline that they share. But it also means much more. According to Lian, a Satellite Sister is “a sounding board for your wacky career plans, a guaranteed chitchat partner at cocktail parties, someone who’s seen you in your glasses, someone to put on the emergency form at your child’s school. A Satellite Sister brings information, perspective and balance to your life when you are lacking all three. A Satellite Sister is the person who gets you through, makes you laugh, and, every once in a while, changes your mind.”

A joint effort between WNYC Radio, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and Mudbath Productions (the Dolans’ own company), Satellite Sisters debuted on four stations on April Fools’ Day 2000. The concept was a few years in the making, though: Its roots go back to August 1996, when Liz—then a high-level executive at Nike—first proposed that the sisters think about collaborating on a business. Since the only real skill they all shared was swimming (and, as she said, it’s hard to make a living as a swimmer), she instead proposed a business that would capitalize on what they collectively did best: talk.

“We all thought it was laughable,” recalls Sheila. “We pretended to go along. We humored her. And we had fun brainstorming about it.”

But Liz persevered. The show now airs on 70 stations, including six of the country’s top 10 radio markets. Thousands more fans “tune in” via Web site, www.satellitesisters.com. And, last November, the Dolans published their first book, UnCommon Senses. A collection of essays, it conveys the lessons these sisters learned growing up in a big family and how that prepared them for life in the real world (see sidebar). Excerpts were published in O Magazine and Good Housekeeping, and in December the Dolans even appeared on Oprah.

“What surprised us when we started talking on the radio was why people said they were listening. They told us that it didn’t really matter what the topic was—they just liked listening to sisters talk. People immediately understood what the show was really about—connecting with family and friends,” Julie wrote in the book.

For the Dolan sisters, those connections include Holy Cross. Their father, James, graduated in 1950, and their uncle Tom Dolan, was in the class of ’53. In addition to the five Dolan girls, there were also three Dolan boys, and they all graduated from Holy Cross: Jim in 1974, Dick in 1976, and Brendan in 1984. Jim’s wife, Mary McGuire, graduated in 1975.

Sheila was the first female Dolan to come to Holy Cross, enrolling in the fall of 1976. But after a year and a half, she decided it wasn’t for her. “At Holy Cross, a lot of kids come from big families, so in some ways, I felt very comfortable there,” she recalls. “But I loved New York, and I wanted that New York excitement. I was in transition.”

“Of course, I was in transition for many years,” she adds with a wry chuckle.

Now, she is the Dolan with the most degrees: In 1990, she earned a bachelor of arts degree in English and education, graduating summa cum laude from Hunter College; in 1996, she completed a master’s in elementary education from the New York Institute of Technology; and, in 1999, she earned another master’s, this one in education administration, from Baruch College.

“After my attempts at Holy Cross, my mother was a little concerned,” Sheila says. “But she trusted that we’d all find our own way, and find out what we were good at.”

None of them could have imagined (although perhaps they should have) that it would be communications, with a capital C. After all, none of them had ever worked in radio—except for Lian, who’d had a brief stint as a disc jockey while she was an undergraduate at Pomona College in the late 1980s. And although Sheila had published what she calls “some really bad poetry” in The Purple, none of the five was a “real” author. So where did they get the nerve to think they could pull this off?

Partly from their mother. “We all grew up knowing we had something to contribute,” Sheila remembers. “She also taught us to work hard. We had to find jobs. We had to do chores. We had to find a way to pay our way.”

And partly from their father, too. It turns out that he was actually the first Dolan with radio experience. “We saw these pictures of my dad when he was a DJ at Holy Cross, spinning the ‘top 10,’ and we thought: ‘how corny is that!’” Sheila says.

“But Dad also instilled a love of language in us and a love of a good story,” she continues. “He taught us how to use the stuff of everyday life as material. What was funny, what wasn’t.”

Sheila concedes that it’s ironic—but fitting—that these early lessons are the foundation for their successful collaboration. Plus, it seems so simple—too simple! “We are Irish, and we love to talk!” she says, laughing. “Somehow people really pick up on our natural chemistry. They are enthralled by the fact that we all really like each other.”

“Lots of people talk about the dysfunctional family; we wanted to celebrate a happy family,” she continues. “Not a perfect family, by any means, but one where we really like each other and enjoy one another and support one another.”

Their fans, they find, fall into two very broad categories: people who grew up much the way they did, and therefore know precisely where they are coming from, or people who didn’t—but wish they had.

“Our listeners believe what we believe: that being someone’s sister, or brother, or teacher, or friend is what gives meaning to our lives,” Julie writes in UnCommon Senses. “Nurturing relationships is what shapes who we are and how we live. We know that you don’t have to have shared the same bathroom … to be connected. Those just happen to be our reasons. Most of us are bound together by sharing the small acts of everyday life with the people in our lives who support, accept, sometimes bust, and always encourage us.”

“I accept and prefer that I am one small cog in a big giant wheel, a wheel that includes family, friends, co-workers, strangers—all kinds of connections,” concludes Lian, in another essay. “And I’ve learned that it’s the quality of these connections that determine the quality of my life.”

Meet the Satellite Sisters

Julie Dolan Smith, 47, graduated from Smith College and earned an M.B.A. degree from Penn State. She and her husband, who have two college-age sons, live in Bangkok, where his job took them in 1999.

Liz Dolan, 44, earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Brown. She runs her own sports marketing company and divides her time between Portland, Ore., and New York City.

Sheila Dolan ’81, 43, just moved to Santa Monica this past summer, after going to school (Hunter College, New York Institute of Technology, and Baruch College) and working in public education in New York City for more than 20 years. She is the divorced mother of Ruth, a student at Hampshire College.

Monica Dolan, 42, graduated from the nursing school at Georgetown University and now works as a clinical specialist for a pacemaker company in Portland, Ore.

Lian Dolan, 37, earned a B.A. degree in classics from Pomona College, Claremont, Calif. A free-lance writer, she lives in Pasadena, Calif., with her husband and two little boys.

Big-Family Lessons from the Satellite Sisters

For anyone who’s grown up in a large family—and especially a large Irish-Catholic family—some of these lessons, excerpted from UnCommon Senses, may sound very familiar:

  • “I would sum up the underlying principles of nearly all household rules as follows: You’re not the only person in the whole damn universe, so you better get over yourself and pitch in for the good of the group. This may sound cold, but in a big family, it is the simple truth.”
  • “In our house, dinner was a big event. After the plates were on the table but before grace was said, there was always one thing left to do: Take the phone off the hook ... Dinner was about conversation with each other—conversation in the loosest sense of the word …When we put the phone back on the hook as we cleared the table, there were no saved messages or indicators of missed calls. In the world before answering machines and voicemail, none of those options ever occurred to us, and we were none the worse for it. There were simply calls that did not happen because we were having dinner together. As my mother always said, ‘If it was important, they’ll call back.’”
  • “My mother didn’t teach us to ski until we could carry our own skis from the car to the lodge in the morning and—this is key—from the lodge back to the car at the end of the day. Even cold, wet and tired, we had to get our skis, poles, and boots back to that station wagon on our own. And no whining. The lesson was simple, really. Be responsible for yourself and your stuff or you miss out.”
  • “Growing up in a big family is great preparation for the big world. All the team-building skills that they try to teach you in grad school, we learned by doing dishes, sharing rooms, borrowing clothes, bickering over the TV, trading chores, cleaning our rooms, fighting over the front seat, setting the table, raking leaves, and always, always, always traveling in large groups.”

Michelle M. Murphy is a free-lance writer from West Hartford, Conn.


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