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A Life: Holly Fell Sateia; ‘She embodied all that was wonderful about my college experience’

  • Holly Sateia in a 2007 photograph at Dartmouth College. Sateia retired as Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity at the college in 2010. (Dartmouth College photograph) Dartmouth College photograph

  • Friends Holly Sateia, right, and Deb Nelson at the information booth at Dartmouth College on July 4, 2019. Sateia volunteered at the booth after her retirement. (Courtesy Deb Nelson) Courtesy Deb Nelson

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 7/10/2022 8:23:20 PM
Modified: 7/11/2022 9:12:11 PM

NORWICH — Holly Sateia built quite the network during her four-plus decades at Dartmouth College — all without studying at the undergraduate level or teaching on the Ivy League’s northernmost campus.

How wide and how deep her connections ran, Judy Mackenzie started to appreciate during a work trip to Florida for the Dartmouth admissions office in the 1980s.

“There was an alumni lunch in Tampa, the kind Holly usually went to for us down there,” Mackenzie, a former Hanover resident who now lives in Minnesota, recalled last week. “I introduced myself, and people were basically saying, ‘Why didn’t Holly come?’ and ‘Why isn’t Holly here?’

“They were just so devoted to her.”

Welcome to the club: After Sateia died of cancer on Feb. 10, at age 73, “the internet was on fire with people reaching out to each other,” said Hanover resident Deb Nelson, another former admissions colleague and longtime friend. “We would run into each other at the River Valley Club, at the Co-op, on the street. We’d hug each other and cry and laugh over all the stories.”

And those narratives and anecdotes and legends, in cyberspace and in person, swirled around for two months before the family hosted farewell services for Sateia at Saint Denis Roman Catholic Church in Hanover.

“There were about 200 people at the mass and celebration of life,” Mike Sateia, Holly’s husband of 48 years, estimated last week. “Afterward I emailed a thank-you note to Father Brian (Mulcahy, the longtime pastor of St. Denis), and he emailed back to say that there were 271 hits on the livestream for the mass.”

Among those who came in person, 2000 Dartmouth graduate Hoi Ning Ngai recounted her first encounter with Holly Sateia, by then Dartmouth’s dean of student life, during a gathering of the Leadership Discovery Program in the fall of 1996.

“I still remember her boundless energy and the speed at which she spoke,” Ngai said during her eulogy. “I didn’t think I could match either — despite being from New York and despite thinking of myself as pretty animated. I realized over time that I could only aspire to be as energized and energizing as Holly was to those around her.”

Sateia’s example energized Ngai, who’d majored in psychology at Dartmouth, to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in higher and postsecondary education. On the way to her current position as an associate director in the Center for Purposeful Work at Bates College in Maine, Ngai served in academic posts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Kenyon College in Ohio and the University of North Carolina graduate program — the latter as associate dean for student affairs.

“I told everyone I knew that I wanted to be Holly,” Ngai told her fellow mourners. “For me, she embodied all that was wonderful about my college experience. Of course, I wanted to be Holly until I realized everything that she did — and then I maybe not. And yet that was what made her who she was: Always juggling so much while supporting others.”

Sateia juggled the raising of her and Mike’s daughters, Heather and Caitlin, and a variety of volunteer activities, while advising and coaxing students, formally and informally, and rising through the Dartmouth administration to senior associate dean of the college and, finally, vice president for institutional diversity and equity.

“Holly was one of the biggest advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion, at a time when many people were still figuring out what those words meant,” Ngai said last week. “As a white woman, she knew that she had access to spaces that many didn’t have access to, and she always used that opportunity to highlight the struggles of others and push those in power to respond. She was never one for the spotlight and would much rather promote others and amplify their voices so they could be seen and heard. No one was invisible with Holly; we all mattered to her, which helped us see that we mattered to the campus and to the community.”

Especially in the early days, at an institution still evolving from its all-male, almost exclusively-white domain, Sateia honed and employed skills that they didn’t teach in the undergraduate classrooms at the University of South Florida.

“I would go so far as to say that she was a force, maybe the force, in making co-education viable,” Judy Mackenzie said. “She had such credibility and such energy. She was always positive. I don’t know another person who worked harder than she did — not just in working at the office more hours, but in going the extra mile to help a student, to make a point to the admissions committee about what made this candidate right for Dartmouth to recruit.”

Count Deb Nelson among those in awe of Sateia’s diplomacy in the face of subtle and sometimes unsubtle resistance to change.

“She was unstoppable: You could not derail Holly,” said Nelson, who after leaving Dartmouth taught in the Lebanon school system. “You could not discourage her. That kind of work ... means, often, confronting the ugly. Holly was the perfect person for helping other people make it around or over or through prejudices or preconceptions. She did not give up. She was incredibly serious about what mattered, but she had humor in her pocket that she could use. She had an entire community she could bring along with her.

“She was in many ways the Madeline Albright of Dartmouth — a real change agent.”

Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, Holly Fell learned a lot about change while her family moved from her birthplace in Pittsburgh to Detroit, then to Dallas, then to the Florida cities of Jacksonville and Clearwater.

“She always said to me, ‘I had to learn how to make friends fast,” Mike Sateia said. “From the very beginning, she was someone who reached out to people.”

Meeting in high school in Jacksonville, Holly Fell and Mike Sateia joined forces to organize the sophomore-class dance.

“Something kind of clicked with us then, though we didn’t date,” Mike Sateia said. “We were kindred spirits, but things never really got going.”

They did stay in touch after Holly’s family moved to Clearwater. And while Mike was attending Dartmouth as an undergraduate in 1968, Holly let him know that she was doing an exchange program at University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

“I said, ‘You have to see Vermont,’ so we met in the middle, spent three hours in a field just over the state line from Massachusetts, talking the whole time,” Mike Sateia said. “That’s when we really bonded, when I realized what a wonderful person she was, and what a wonderful life we could have.”

They married in 1974, after Mike’s third year of medical school at Duke University. After his postgraduate training, the opportunity arose to return to the Upper Valley, where Mike launched his career in the study and treatment of sleep disorders at Dartmouth Medical School and Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital.

Holly, meanwhile, took a swing at selling condominiums at the Brook Hollow development. After that fizzled, quickly, she dropped by the Dartmouth office of admissions, where she asked longtime director Edward T. Chamberlain Jr. about job openings.

While Chamberlain, a 1936 Dartmouth graduate, was in many ways a traditionalist — in the early 1960s, he gave a widely-reprinted talk about the need to “look for the kind of boy who represents the ultimate in the purpose of Dartmouth College” — he saw something in Holly Sateia that his alma mater would need in a new world. Something that transcended the minus-25 that she scored on the typing test through which the personnel office put her.

“Eddie liked the cut of her jib, as he would often say,” Mike Sateia recalled. 

Holly soon rose to the role of associate director of admissions, and by 1988, she had impressed enough people for then-Dean of the College Edward J. Shanahan to appoint her as dean of student life. 

Neither the title, nor the subsequent vice presidency, ever went to her head.

“She was a large, large, large personality,” Nelson said. “It was impossible to be around Holly and not laugh. She was very self-deprecating, but it was also effortless of her to be funny, to bring people together on any kind of issue.”

Outside of work, Nelson added, “if you needed help in buying a car, or almost anything else she heard about going on in your life, she would be right there.

“She was the glue that held so many people together.”

After accepting the early-retirement buyout that Dartmouth offered to hundreds of senior employees in 2010, Sateia threw herself even more deeply into the lives of her grown children and their children, and those of friends old and new.

“If you had a death in the family, or someone was ill, Holly would make a chicken-pot pie and bring it to you,” Mike Sateia recalled with a laugh. “I used to joke, ‘Fear the pie,’ because it meant something was amiss.”

Holly also took on even more volunteer activities, from the Upper Valley Haven and the Norwich Women’s Club’s twice-a-year Nearly New Sales of used clothing — benefiting college scholarships — to the Hartford Community Coalition’s summer-meals program for needy families, and a mentoring program for at-risk girls at Stevens High School in Claremont.

And to keep a finger on the pulse of the Dartmouth community, Sateia volunteered for about a decade at the information booth on the green in Hanover.

“It was a way for her to stay in contact with her friends from the college, as well as with a lot of folks she didn’t know. She was always willing to lend a hand and give people an earful.”

Deb Nelson can still hear her friend and former colleague in her head, if no longer her ears.

“People were saying after she died, ‘That couldn’t happen to Holly,’ ” Nelson said. “There was just this vitality to her that seemed to defy endings.

“Her life was all about beginnings.”

The Sateia family welcomes donations to the Holly Sateia Memorial Fund, which helps first-generation, low-income Dartmouth students with college expenses. Visit https://dartgo.org/fellsateiafund.

David Corriveau can be reached at dacorriveau@gmail.com.




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