How One Woman’s Generosity to Cook Children's Has Shaped Health Care for North Texas
On International Women's Day 2022, Cook Children's is sharing how Pit Dodson's impact has reached every corner of Cook Children’s campus, shaped every service and touched every patient’s life in some way, big or small.
It’s impossible to write the story of Cook Children’s Health Care System without also telling the story of Clarabele “Pit” Dodson. Her tenacious spirit and generosity have made an indelible imprint on Cook Children’s campus, culture and services. Her legacy is and will be one of giving, service, compassion and timeless wisdom.
“When you think about the generosity of Pit Dodson, you have to think about all the kids she’s helped up to this point but also the generations of kids in the future,” said Stan Davis, chief operating officer at Cook Children’s. “Yes, Pit has given us so much through her generous donations, but just as importantly Pit has given us her time and her heart. She’s a part of Cook Children’s that will last forever.”
A native of Fort Worth, Pit was born on September 17, 1925, to John Patrick Steele and Donnie May. The two met during the tumultuous times of World War I. Her dad worked for South Chester Tube Company while her mom stayed home to keep watch over Pit and her brother and sister.
Not wanting to share a name with the cartoon cow, Clarabelle —better known as Minnie Mouse’s best friend— Pit embraced the nickname given to her by her brother.
"When I was born, my brother was two years older,” Pit said. “And Dad would say, ‘Isn't she a pretty thing?' to my brother but my brother couldn't say ‘pretty.' How he got Pit, I don't know. I guess pretty became Pit. When I grew up, I adopted it because Clarabele is my name, and that was the name of a cow."
Pit learned the art of giving from her parents, who instilled in her the importance of taking care of others from an early age. For as far back as she can remember, her parents supported the two entities that would later become Cook Children’s Medical Center. One of them was the Fort Worth Free Baby Hospital where Pit’s mother would deliver home-cooked meals that she prepared.
“Those lessons Pit learned as a small child have stayed with her to this day,” Davis said. “It’s amazing to think that a child from Fort Worth has helped to change her city forever in such a positive way.”
As a child, Pit loved to play nurse. Her heart for the profession and for people led her to answer the call of a local doctor looking for volunteers to work in a Fort Worth hospital during World War II. Many of the nurses were overseas caring for soldiers, leaving the hospital understaffed. Pit was a student at Paschal High School at the time and didn’t hesitate to raise her hand.
“They gave us a crash course,” Pit said of her hospital training.
A Wife and Mother
Pit went on to marry T.L. Dodson Jr. and moved with him to a working ranch in Wise County where they raised their two sons. There she learned to care for every animal on the ranch, from the baby bull she bottle-fed and raised as her pet to the numerous stray cats and skunks she left milk out for every day.
“I raised a bull in the house,” Pit said, recalling the story of her husband carrying the bull calf into their home, handing it over to her and telling her she gets to care for it. “I was a city girl and I raised that bull on my son’s formula. That bull never knew he was an animal.”
When she wasn’t tending to her children and the animals on the ranch, Pit took up the hobby of jewelry making in the craft room her husband outfitted for her. She also volunteered her time at various organizations in Fort Worth and Wise County.
A Champion for Children
A 1989 tour of Cook Children’s ignited the couple’s passion for the health care system. Together they began pouring their time, love and generosity into the organization.
A gift from the Dodsons built the Cook Children’s Dodson Specialty Clinics building, home to numerous pediatric specialty offices and a pediatric surgery center. Pit is also the benefactor for the emergency helicopter and fixed wing jet that carries Cook Children’s Teddy Bear Transport team and the more than 2,500 critically ill pediatric patients the team transports each year.
Pit's husband was a pilot, so she had a natural interest in the work of the Transport team. In fact, Pit was instrumental in getting the helicopter that is used today. She even donned her own flight suit for a ride in the helicopter when it was not transporting a patient. As a tribute to her spirit of giving and adventure, the helicopter seats are inscribed with her name.
Pit also supported the purchase of Cook Children’s jet, which carries with it a special tribute to Pit and her husband. The tail number on the jet is 917TL, or nine-one-seven-Tango-Lima. The 9-1-7 is Pit’s birthday, September 17, and the TL represents her husband’s initials.
Those who know her best say that Pit's generosity has nothing to do with recognition.
“The thing with Pit is that she’s the ultimate philanthropist because she doesn’t care if her name’s on anything,” said Debbie Boudreaux, assistant vice president of nursing at Cook Children's. “She just wants to take care of children. We were in the process of looking for a new, fixed-wing aircraft because we knew we were going to expand our reach. We don’t just fly within Texas. We go anywhere in the continental United States and even to South America or Mexico. We needed an aircraft that would allow us to do just that, and to get there and back in a timely fashion. There wasn’t any hesitation on Pit’s part. If we needed it, she was going to provide it for us and so we were able to get our jet.”
Before becoming assistant vice president of nursing at Cook Children’s, Boudreaux served as the director of Teddy Bear Transport where she got to know Pit well. Even today, Pit will call Boudreaux when she sees the helicopter in the air.
Pit’s most recent gift helped establish a Neuro-research endowment, as well as a Pastoral Care endowment. It also helps support Cook Children’s Total XVII trial, which aims to provide a more efficient way to treat patients with various forms of leukemia.
A Kind and Compassionate Soul
Pit and T.L. were married for 60 years before his passing in 2005. When asked about her secret for such a long, happy marriage, Pit’s answer was simple.
“Kindness goes a long way,” she said. “Kindness is the root of everything. If you say something you shouldn’t, always apologize. Try never to go to bed mad. Talking it out relieves things.”
As a widow, Pit became even more engaged in the work of Cook Children’s. She thinks of the medical center and the children it serves as part of her family, and loves them just the same.
Not one to sit on the sideline, Pit spent time at Camp Sanguinity, a camp for Cook Children’s patients with cancer and blood disorders. Jill Koss, director of Family Support Services, remembers fondly the days when someone would drive Pit 70 miles to spend a day at the camp. What impressed Koss so much about Pit’s stay wasn’t just that she supported the camp financially, but that Pit saw herself as an advocate for the campers. Koss said Pit gave her “whole heart” to everyone who stayed at the camp, touring the facility and offering her prayers.
“Pit is a woman with a huge heart and a passion for kids,” Koss said. “She believes in the work that Cook Children’s does. With her visiting the kids at camp, it was a real, tangible way for her to actually engage with the campers and with our patients. She came out to camp multiple times. It gave Pit a chance to interact with the kids, especially the younger ones, and see their cabins. She had lunch with everybody.”
The campers were told that Pit was someone who made camp possible. Throughout her stay, Pit welcomed hugs from grateful campers.
“This was a different setting than the medical center,” Koss said. “It’s more difficult to see the day in and day out workings of a hospital. But camp was a real way for Pit to engage with our patients and their siblings in a way she never could at the medical center. I think Pit saw the benefit that camp has on kids healing outside of the actual health care environment.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to keep her physical distance, Pit’s heart remained trained on the well-being of children as she shared her wisdom on weathering a pandemic and overcoming adversity for a piece published on Cook Children’s Newsroom. It’s a topic she knows a little something about, having survived the polio epidemic, scarlet fever and diphtheria as a child.
“I’m a pretty tough old bird,” she said with a chuckle.
In the spring of 1943, a terrible headache following a pool party with friends sent her to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital (formerly Harris Hospital) in downtown Fort Worth.
“The polio headache is one of the worst headaches,” Pit explained. “You can’t talk. It’s like a hammer. My mother called the doctor and said ‘something’s wrong, Pit’s very ill.’”
Pit, then 16, was placed in a large room with about 35 other patients.
“There were old-fashioned washing machines everywhere,” she said. “The nurses put the pads in the machines in hot, hot water and rang them out. That’s how they got the hot pads to put on our bodies to stop the spasms. My father donated about 100 of these machines to the hospital.”
Pit was the oldest patient in Texas Health Harris Methodist’s polio wing at the time. Ever the caregiver, she became somewhat of a mother figure to the younger children. After many weeks, Pit’s parents decided to bring her home to receive round-the-clock care from her great aunt, a nurse who had traveled to Boston to train to care for children with polio.
Thankfully, Pit recovered from the virus without any long-term effects. It would be years before a polio vaccine was released, effectively eradicating the disease. She says the COVID-19 pandemic reminds her of that period in many ways, but technology, media and politics have created an environment completely different from the one in which she grew up.
“Parents and children are in a spot we’ve never been,” Pit said, reflecting on how the pandemic impacted families. “Both parents are working, and working today is not the same. They’re working at home 24-hours a day. I can’t fathom it. So, parents have a bigger responsibility than what we did. Their patience is wearing thin and children don’t understand because they are seeing a world they cannot grasp.”
Kids, Pit explained, need our help to get through these hard times.
“Children and adults all have different perspectives in life,” she said. “Don’t just tell them they’re going to get through it. You’ve got to help see them through it and help them work through it.”
Pit credits her strength and perspective to her faith in God. She is an avid Bible reader and knows a thing or two about the Old Testament.
“I go eat my breakfast first and then I go into my prayer room for an hour and I get real still,” she said. “If you think you’re alone, get real still and God will talk to you. God still gives you the right to choose, but he will always talk to you. Listen first before you do what you plan to do.”
It’s safe to say Pit’s generosity has reached every corner of Cook Children’s campus, shaped every service and touched every patient’s life in some way, big or small. At 94-years-old, her focus on caring for the community she loves has yet to weaken. The legacy of giving that her parents left with her so many years ago is one she continues to foster and grow for the benefit of Cook Children’s and the families it serves.
About Cook Children's
Cook Children’s Health Care System embraces an inspiring Promise – to improve the health of every child through the prevention and treatment of illness, disease and injury. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, we’re proud of our long and rich tradition of serving our community. Our not-for-profit organization is comprised of nine companies, including our Medical Center, Physician Network, Home Health company, Northeast Hospital, Pediatric Surgery Center, Health Plan, Health Services Inc., Child Study Center and Health Foundation. With more than 60 primary, specialty and urgent care locations throughout Texas, families can access our top-ranked specialty programs and network of services to meet the unique needs of their child. For 100 years, we’ve worked to improve the health of children from across our primary service area of Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise counties. We combine the art of caring with leading technology and extraordinary collaboration to provide exceptional care for every child. This has earned Cook Children’s a strong, far-reaching reputation with patients traveling from around the country and the globe to receive life-saving pediatric care. For more information, visit cookchildrens.org.