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MCW Alumna Left a Legacy of Persistence, Achievement and Devotion to Family

MCW alumna left a legacy of persistence, achievement and devotion to family
(l-r) Dr. Dillig and her sister, Maura Brennan, MD ’92, at MCW’s 1992 Commencement ceremonies. (photo courtesy of Bridget Brennan)

Ask the family of Katherine M. Dillig, MD '84, what they remember of her, and the answers come in a flurry:

“Katie was always in a hurry.” “Very smart.” “Committed to her family.” “Perseverance.” “An indomitable spirit.”

“Katie was always in a hurry,” remembers a sister, Bridget Brennan, who attended law school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the time Dr. Dillig was a medical student at MCW. “She wasn’t going to lollygag around and take time to smell the roses. She had stuff to do.”

That approach to life was understandable. The oldest of 12 children with three children of her own – including an infant – by the time she enrolled at MCW, Dr. Dillig possessed a capacity to manage sprawling responsibilities with a confident demeanor.

Katherine Brennan Dillig, ca. 1971Another sister, Sheila Conroy, recollects a time from Dr. Dillig’s medical school days when their large and growing families with children of all ages would get together in their mother’s kitchen in vibrant, joyful and noisy multigenerational gatherings.

Pictured right: Katherine Brennan Dillig, ca. 1971. (photo courtesy of Matthew Dillig)

“We’d usually be playing some game like Trivial Pursuit,” Conroy says, “and as we played, Katie would have the baby in a bouncy seat next to her, bouncing the baby with one hand and highlighting a medical school textbook with the other hand.”

Dr. Dillig passed away unexpectedly in 2010, leaving behind a family that by then had grown to seven children – with the addition of a child adopted from Korea and three more adopted from the side of the family of her first husband, Thomas Dillig.

The extended family has longstanding roots in the Milwaukee community – and to MCW. Dr. Dillig’s grandmother, Bessie Casey, served for decades as the registrar for the Marquette University School of Medicine (MCW’s predecessor institution). Yet another sister, Dr. Maura Brennan, is a 1992 medical school graduate of MCW, and a niece is expected to graduate with the MCW School of Medicine Class of 2024 in May.

When Dr. Dillig decided she wanted to go to medical school, her natural tenacity drove her success. Shortly after graduating from high school with top honors, she married her high school sweetheart, Tom Dillig, who was in the Air Force. She took college classes on military bases when she was able to but didn’t finish college. So, when they returned to Milwaukee, she earned her degree and completed the prerequisites for becoming a student of medicine by attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, often traveling by bus to her classes before returning home to study into the evening after getting the children into bed.

This was during a time when there were not only very few women attending medical school, but even fewer raising a family at the same time. However, Dr. Dillig managed to achieve her goal of obtaining a medical degree while still managing to be present for her family.

Dr. Katherine Dillig and extended family, ca. 2006-2007
Dr. Dillig (at left in pink shirt) at a family gathering in Deep Creek, MD., ca. 2006-2007. (photo courtesy of Nola Brennan)

“I remember a lot of late nights and early mornings,” her oldest son, Matthew Dillig, says. “You know, she was either working or she was with her family.”

“I think she was raised that way,” Matthew Dillig continues.

“People like her parents and Bessie Casey showed her that you can do anything you want. She was very intelligent, too, and I think the difficulty of practicing medicine appealed to her . . .like, I can accomplish this, and I’m smart enough to do this.”

After graduation from medical school, Dr. Dillig went on to specialize in emergency medicine and often pulled the night shift, which, Matthew Dillig recalls, was among the sacrifices she was willing to make for her family.

While the medical field tends to attract individuals who are smart and high-performers, Dr. Dillig’s family sees the connection between her strong desire to care for her family and others as one motivation to go to medical school.

Dr. Dillig’s sister, Bridget Brennan, notes that family was always her first priority.

“You could call her with anything anytime and it was never too much,” Brennan says. “You were never interrupting her. She was absolutely dedicated to caring for all of us, and certainly when she became a doctor.”

Dr. Katherine Dillig, mother, and sisters
(l-r) Mary Brennan (Dr. Dillig’s mother); Sheila Conroy (sister); Dr. Dillig; and Bridget Brennan (sister). (photo courtesy of Nola Brennan)

In memory of her mother’s many contributions to her family, Matthew Dillig established the Katherine M. Dillig, MD, Endowed Scholarship Fund. And other family members are making their own contributions to the fund. Recipients of the fund are drawn from women attending the MCW School of Medicine who also are raising families.

Matthew Dillig hopes the fund will inspire other women like his mother and make their own journeys through medical school a little easier.

“Even with everything she went through, at the end of the day, she accomplished what she wanted to accomplish,” Matthew Dillig says. “She had her family. She got through medical school. She practiced the medicine that she really wanted to practice and, you know, it took a lot of hard work.”

“And what we want to do with the fund is to make it just a touch easier for other women attending medical school with families to realize their dreams, too. I think my mom would approve and be proud of what we’re doing to remember all that she did for all of us,” he adds.

– Michael J. Mathias

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