Janet Dellaria traveled roughly 585,000 miles by plane and car in pursuit of her doctoral degree. On Wednesday, those miles culminated in a public defense of her dissertation at Our Lady of the Lake University. She is 73 years old, and now, she says, the adventure continues.

“Write … teach … meet people …,” Dellaria mused on what is next. “Whatever the Holy Spirit wants me to do.”

It’s a philosophy that has served her well throughout her eight-year academic journey. In February 2009, Dellaria woke up in her home in Trout Creek, Mich., with one clear thought: “You’ve always wanted to get your Ph.D.,” she thought to herself. “If you don’t get it now, you never will.

She describes that thought as “entheos,” which literally means “filled with God,” and said it was like a push that compelled her to get out of bed and start looking for a doctoral program.

That first step was a big one. Trout Creek, with population of 375, is nestled against the Ottawa National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Dellaria ran the area’s only grocery store, where she worked 40-60 hours a week, and drove 85 miles to the nearest Walmart to restock items when they ran low.

As a senior citizen, she qualified for free tuition in the Michigan State University system, and two campuses were within driving distance. She still had a house in Illinois, where she had worked as a librarian until she retired. Because she had worked as a public employee, she also qualified for free tuition in the Illinois State University system, which had a campus 35 minutes from her home.

After looking into doctoral programs at those schools, however, Dellaria was still unconvinced. “Neither one seemed like a good fit.”

She decided to look into her alma mater, OLLU, where she had earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in library science. The school’s doctoral program in leadership studies struck her.

“I liked the names and titles of the classes,” Dellaria said.

She went through the application process, which was a preview of the logistical hurdles her Trout Creek commute would present for the next eight years. Through a quirk in the mail delivery system, she never received her acceptance letter. She found out she was accepted less than a week before classes started.

Our Lady of the Lake University.
Our Lady of the Lake University. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The practical implications – last-minute travel arrangements, the living situation, and coverage for the store – were daunting, but she hadn’t lost that sense of entheos.

“I took a nap and prayed on it,” Dellaria said. A little voice inside her said, “I want to go.”

Dellaria spent most of her life supporting family members as they pursued their own livelihoods and dreams. Now, most of them had died, and she felt compelled to fulfill her own dream.

She drove the 80 miles to the nearest airport in Wisconsin, leaving her car parked at a nearby motel, flew to San Antonio, rented a car, and checked into a local hotel – as she would every other weekend for the next four years.

“I was nervous like a kid going to the first day of kindergarten,” Dellaria said. She had not been in school for over 40 years.

When she returned home from her first weekend of classes, her driveway was filled with bicycles. Waiting on her porch were the children of Trout Creek, eager to hear about her first day of school.

Already a familiar face in Trout Creek, she became a local legend. Many of those children, now teenagers, will be at her graduation party, which she expects to be a “whole town affair.”

In the spring of 2011, a heart condition rendered Dellaria unable to travel. Rather than having her sit out a semester, the Sisters of Divine Providence housed her at their convent. For Dellaria, insatiably curious, the living situation was intriguing and satisfying. “I got to see how they did their lives,” she said.

Our Lady of the Lake University.
Our Lady of the Lake University is located across from Elmendorf Lake Park Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In August 2011, Dellaria closed the store in Trout Creek. It was no longer financially viable, and she was using her retirement savings just to make payroll. It freed her up to travel more with her best friend. Every year the friends traveled to Hawaii, eventually being invited to special events at the Royal Palace and other cultural institutions to look into the culture of the native Hawaiians. Dellaria has become somewhat of an activist on the matter and served as a docent at the East Hawaii Cultural Center, which will be another graduation party site.

Dellaria began work on her dissertation in 2013. Her topic, the relationship between spirituality and leader behavior when controlling for personality, resonated with those she surveyed for her research. In the end, of the 889 people who participated, 736 (83%) completed the survey, giving Dellaria a strong basis for her research.

She has no explanation for how she got such a strong response rate. Most doctoral surveys are not so widely disseminated and do not enjoy such a high response rate. For surveys not administered in person or by phone, 50% is considered a good rate.

“I swear this is how the Holy Spirit works,” Dellaria said. “Every time it got crazy around me, I would say, ‘Whatever it is you want me to do, just help me.’”

Dellaria gave her hour-long oral defense wearing a Hawaiian lei and dress, an homage to her adopted home.

The oral defense was well received by the jury. “The leader is definitely the soul of an organization,” said one jury member. “Studies like this will hopefully affect the direction and the growth of leaders.” 

That’s the idea, Dellaria said. She hopes that the same forces that guided her journey will guide the work into the lives of others. Her idea of God, she said, is expansive, and she is looking forward to what is in store as she continues to see entheos at work. While she waits for the next step to unfold, she prays the following prayer:

“Dear Universe,

I thank you for the food on my table and the Abundance in my Life

I give Thanks for the Incredible Gift of Friendship

Give me what is the Very Best for me, and the Courage, Grace, and Strength to

accept it, and to Bloom and Grow and Thrive ever in Your Love.”

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.