When Mary E. Cole learned she received Chatham University's Distinguished Alumna Award, she responded with the same steely nonchalance that had helped her endure the challenges of working in a male-dominated work force a generation before.
"I was pleased and flattered," she said with a chuckle.
Dr. Cole, 90, of Forest Hills, a retired psychologist, received the honor last month and will be honored at a luncheon Saturday. She spent much of her career at Psychological Services of Pittsburgh and, outside the office, dedicated her time mentoring female professionals and trying to encourage women to get involved in politics.
Dr. Cole graduated from what was then Pennsylvania College for Women in 1939 with a bachelor's degree in biology. She later became a psychologist at a time when few women went to college, let alone received doctorates.
She and her sisters, Edith and Joan, enlisted in the Women's Army Corps as soon as the call was made during World War II.
The decision to put herself on the front lines, Dr. Cole said, "was easy."
"There was a war on," she said flatly. "You never want to miss anything."
As a staff officer overseas, she was stationed in Belgium and France, where windows were blacked out so pilots dropping bombs during air raids wouldn't see them.
The men had little respect for the female officers, at least initially.
"The men weren't very happy to have us," she said. "They thought we were there for their benefit. They discovered otherwise. You had to earn [their respect], there was no question of that."
She returned to college after the war and decided to become a psychologist because she was "interested in people." She said she occasionally endured harassment from her male peers but "shut them off" quickly.
She later became a career psychologist, working with men and women clients in a variety of industries at Psychological Services of Pittsburgh.
She worked with and mentored female professionals during an era when women executives were such a rarity that Dr. Cole had to prove that she and others were not, in fact, terribly different from their male counterparts. She conducted a survey of women in management, which concluded just that.
A Post-Gazette article on the subject, published in April 1978, began this way:
"The woman executive: Does she really begin her career as a secretary, have a mentor and marry a man 10 years her senior? Is she truly more empathetic, warmhearted and passive than her male counterparts?"
Dr. Cole's study, considered groundbreaking at the time, concluded that men and women managers share many of the same traits and that "female executives ... bear no resemblance to the euphemistic traditional woman."
Outside of the office, she was one of the leaders of the Pittsburgh Executive Women's Council and a volunteer with Zonta International, a community service organization for professional women that existed largely because Rotary International didn't accept women.
She also founded the Women's Political Caucus, which she said did not have a particular political bent but just sought to get women involved in politics.
Dr. Cole is a resident at Juniper Village, an assisted living facility in Forest Hills. She previously lived in Friendship.
She's less busy and spends her days listening to classical music, playing bridge and following Pittsburgh sports teams, "whether they're good or bad."
But when she recalls her experiences and her accomplishments, she does so as if they are not all that extraordinary.
"I think the experiences I've had are fairly universal," she said.
Moriah Balingit can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2533.