Gwendolyn Mollison-Douglas ’51 was an award-winning teacher, an active volunteer and a seasoned world traveler. She also was a trailblazer, as the first African-American student to attend and graduate from Elmhurst College.
Mollison-Douglas died in her home of 17 years, the Leisure World Community in Silver Spring, Md., on December 17, 2017, at the age of 88. On Sunday, July 1, a celebration of her life will be held in Oak Park, her home for many years.
Mollison-Douglas taught in the Chicago Public Schools for 39 years, in various grades within the gifted arts program. She spent much of her career teaching in the gifted program at Sayer School, on Chicago’s West Side, as well as at Burbank School, on the Northwest Side. Beloved by many of her students, she received the Golden Apple Award in 1990.
Born in Cleveland in 1929, Mollison-Douglas got her start in education when she was recruited to attend Elmhurst College. In a 2001 article in the Wednesday Journal newspaper, she described herself as a frightened 18-year-old when she started at Elmhurst, pointing out that the civil rights movement had not fully gotten under way. She knew she would be the only student of color but decided to attend anyway: “I have always been comfortable in my skin and often was the child that was used as the ‘noble experiment,’” she said in the Wednesday Journal article. “I believed I could make it at Elmhurst.”
As a student, she majored in sociology, and also participated in student theater, The Leader student newspaper, and Elm Bark publications. She made lifelong friends at Elmhurst, but also had to overcome a number of obstacles, both as a student and after she graduated and sought a teaching position.
Still, she made time for her alma mater, serving as a member of the College’s Advisory Council on Elementary and Secondary Education. During the College’s 2001 Commencement ceremonies, Mollison-Douglas received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Elmhurst College, in recognition of her career and contributions to society.
“Gwendolyn Mollison-Douglas embodies the synergy between liberal learning and professional preparation that is so much a part of the Elmhurst tradition,” the honorary degree citation said. “Ms. Mollison-Douglas consistently has used her talents in art, creative writing, language arts, and world cultures as a springboard for promoting learning and community development.
“Her work on a variety of projects has advanced community dialogue on building a stronger, diverse, interdependent learning environment for all students.”
During her years as a teacher, Mollison-Douglas lived in Chicago and Oak Park. She was admired for her spirit of adventure, traveling all over the world well into her 80s and bringing back stories for her friends who were no longer able to travel, said her son, Paul Mollison.
In addition to traveling, Mollison-Douglas was a tireless volunteer: She taught English at the local library, was a docent at the Field Museum, gave Frank Lloyd Wright tours in Oak Park, and made dresses for girls in Africa, Mollison said.
She was passionate about sharing knowledge, said her stepdaughter, Diane Douglas. “Even when she wasn’t in the classroom, she was teaching, sharing information,” she said. “If she knew the origin of a flower, a food or a plant, or the history of a book or a painting, it didn’t matter—she had a very broad knowledge of a lot of different areas. I would say she was a teacher all her life.”
On Sunday, July 1, friends and family of Mollison-Douglas will hold a celebration of life service from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Oak Park Public Library, second floor, 834 Lake St., in Oak Park. The service is open to the public.