GREENFIELD — Despite having had more than 185 surgeries over the past 16 years, Kathy Dowling continues to radiate positivity.
The retired Greenfield educator is widely known for her tenacity and grit.
In a time that has been challenging for everyone, friends have looked to Dowling as an example of courage and strength.
“Everyone loves Kathy. She’s like the Energizer bunny,” said her longtime friend, Kristin Fewell.
Despite ongoing surgeries and hospital stays, Dowling, 66, a member of the Greenfield-Central School Board, has been known to attend board meetings virtually from her hospital bed or while resting at home when she can’t make it to meetings in person.
She has sometimes appeared on screen with an oxygen tube in her nose, determined to fill her board responsibilities. She’s also on the Greenfield Parks Board.
“Kathy’s passion for kids’ education drives her to seek out the best education we can give our students at Greenfield-Central,” said Dan Brown, president of the Greenfield-Central school board.
His wife, Dawn Wooten-Brown, also speaks highly of Dowling, who was her high school counselor years ago at Greenfield-Central High School. The two have remained close over the years.
“She was my counselor in high school, and she has been my counselor ever since. She’s helped me along the way in life,” said Wooten-Brown, who got extra support from Dowling when her mom died her freshman year of high school.
“She took an interest to make sure I stayed focused and passed my classes,” Wooten-Brown recalled. When she struggled with grief, Dowling set up a peer grief support group at the high school.
“Kathy is one of the most giving people that you’ll ever meet,” said Fewell, who has been close friends with Dowling since the two met as fifth-graders in the children’s choir at Bradley United Methodist Church in Greenfield.
The two lived together for a time after college, and Fewell still treasures Dowling as a close family friend.
“She never has a cross word or anything negative to say,” said Fewell. “With all she’s got going on, she still finds the good in everything and everyone.”
Dowling’s medical problems first started in 2004, when she went into kidney failure. She’s had four kidney transplants since then and has faced a host of other challenges. She’s also survived stomach cancer, a blood disorder, an intestinal transplant, two comas and three episodes of cardiopulmonary arrest.
Dowling speaks matter-of-factly about her ongoing medical battles. She had her 187th surgery just last month.
“I almost died during that surgery,” she said. “It was so bad, because so many things in my system had crashed. I had five teams of doctors bring me back.”
Despite her challenges, Dowling said she feels blessed beyond measure. “I just keep getting miracle after miracle,” she said.
Dowling is still not sure what her future holds. For now she’ll continue following doctor’s orders, getting some rest and taking a long list of medications.
“I’m just really grateful because I’m always a real complex challenge for doctors, and they always meet the challenge,” she said.
Dowling’s friends provide a great support system, Fewell said. “She is just the world to many people. Everybody who knows her just loves her, and anybody will do anything to help her, because she will do anything to help anybody if she can.”
While Dowling continues to serve the community — attending board meetings in person, if not online — Fewell said people will never truly know just how much she’s done for Hancock County.
“She’s philanthropic, and does things that people never know. She doesn’t do things to get accolades; she does things because she’s a generous, caring person,” she said.
For five years, Dowling volunteered twice a week in Fewell’s first-grade classroom, helping students with their handwriting. “The kids loved her and she loved them,” Fewell recalled.
The schools and the parks are two of Dowling’s passions, and she’s served on the local boards for both since 2011. In January, she started her third term on both boards.
“I love all things recreation,” said Dowling, who served for years as a girls’ diving and track coach at Greenfield-Central.
During her time on the parks board, Dowling has especially loved working on the committees to create the splash pad in 2018 and renovate the city swimming pool in 2019.
“Swimming always was one of my passions, so I was so thrilled to be able to do all that,” she said.
Another parks project that was near and dear to her heart was helping drive the installation of an all-inclusive park for children with special needs, at the Greenfield Baseball Park behind Greenfield Central Junior High School.
“I’ve always been an advocate for special ed throughout my career, and I adore and love that we have that all-inclusive park,” she said.
Dowling said she’s proud of the hard work done by the local parks department staff, as well as the faculty and staff at the Greenfield-Central schools.
Throughout her eight-year tenure, Dowling is perhaps most proud of the corporation’s handling of the ongoing COVID crisis.
“What the teachers have sacrificed this year is admirable. The teachers, custodians, superintendents and entire staff have worked together as a team, and I think they’ve done an amazing job,” she said.
Dowling graduated from Greenfield-Central High School in 1972, then earned a bachelor’s degree in English education and journalism from Indiana University. She later earned two master’s degrees in counseling guidance and personal services, one from Purdue University and another from Butler University.
She started her teaching and coaching career at Merrillville High School before joining the staff at Greenfield-Central, where she served as a teacher, coach and journalism adviser before serving as a school counselor, director of counseling and dean of students.
She’s also been a presenter at state and national counseling conventions.
Through all of her ups and downs, Dowling credits her “tribe” of friends for helping see her through.
“I’ve had two people give me a kidney, and I’ve had two kidneys from (deceased) people I didn’t know. Whenever I need anything, there is always somebody out there who will help,” she said.
“I am so blessed with a community that just steps up and friends who are like family to me. I don’t know how I could be any more blessed.”
This story appears in the January edition of PrimeTime magazine, which can be found in the Jan. 30-Feb. 1 print edition of the Daily Reporter.