The Honorable Dorothy Thomson

Turquoise nails matching her shirt, Dorothy Thomson’s laugh echoes through a room in the Coral Gables office she’s shared with her husband for decades. She speaks, humbly at times, proudly at others, of her life and the people who’ve influenced her along the way, the stories falling out as if they are eager to be shared.

From growing up in a rural town in upstate New York to becoming the first and only female mayor of Coral Gables to date, raising a family and earning a college degree despite all odds, hers is a story of accomplishment and devotion to hard work, family, and public service.

A happy childhood in an unhappy time

Thomson was born at the height of the Great Depression in 1932.

Still, she remembers her childhood fondly. There were chores and hard work, but also strolls with her dog, Copper, on the hills surrounding their home in rural Peekskill, New York. When World War II came, there were air raid wardens, food rationing, and a collective effort to keep the country running. But there were also small gifts from the Veterans of Foreign Wars at Christmastime, fresh vegetables from victory gardens in their backyard, and a close-knit family who supported each other.

Love at first sight

It was in celebration of her high school graduation in 1950 that Thomson first arrived in Florida. She had planned to visit her brother who was in the Navy in San Diego with her mom, her favorite travel companion, but he was sent to war in Korea. They opted instead for Florida, a decision that would alter the course of Thomson’s life.

They drove 1,500 miles down from New York to Miami, through small towns and cities on the east coast because there were no interstate highways yet, the windows down because there was no A/C. “Arriving in Miami,” she says, “I fell in love with this Magic City. I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Right then, I vowed to return and live here.”

A new life

True to her word, Thomson returned to Florida in July of 1953. She found a job in the accounting office of the Southern Bell Telephone Company in Coral Gables and rented a little cottage. A neighbor offered to introduce her to someone. He had originally wanted her to meet his brother but since he was off in the Korean war, he settled for his brother’s best friend.

Jack Thomson had just graduated from the University of Miami. On their first date (a double date on Labor Day 1953), they went down to Key Biscayne, where he pulled out a ukulele and began playing and singing to her. “I fell in love at that moment, right then and there,” she says. “At the age of 21, I had no hesitation in my mind that this was the one.”

Three months later, on November 29, 1953, as he was about to be inducted into the army, they were married at Granada Presbyterian Church in Coral Gables (a church they still attend, some 66 years later). 

They spent three years between Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to Miami in 1956. While he enrolled at the University of Miami to study law through the GI Bill, she began her bachelor’s degree. A year later, they welcomed their first daughter, and Thomson dropped out of college to focus on raising a family.

A passion for public service

Thomson had always been active in the community, a trait she says she inherited from her mother. “I think she instilled that in me,” she says, “to be involved with things of the community. Maybe that's the reason, but I just gravitated to it normally, by first of all joining the Coral Gables Woman's Club in 1959. That's when it started."

“For far too many years,” Thomson says, “the government was run only by businessmen.” In fact, there had only been two women who had ever served on the city commission, and the latest had passed away eight years earlier. “It was time for women to emerge one more time,” she adds.

She ran for Coral Gables City Commission in 1979 and won a two-year seat, running again in 1981 and winning a four-year seat.

By then, Thomson had gained more visibility and had an established record. On the night of April 10th, 1985, people gathered at City Hall for the results and she became the first female mayor of Coral Gables.

In her 16 years on the commission, Thomson was known for her responsiveness to her constituents, writing replies to them herself, and for taking the time to learn about issues that concerned them.

Coral Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, who first joined the commission the year Thomson became mayor, remembers, among other things, her orange Corvette and Mayor 85 license plate. 

Former Commissioner Frank Quesada says Thomson has been a pivotal person in the city’s history. “She’s an undercover street fighter,” he says. “She’s polite, professional, and humble, so you’d never know. But don’t be fooled, when she has a goal she will push and strategize and make it happen.”

A plaque in City Hall honors the work that she’s done to help shape Coral Gables into the city it is today, from  founding the Coral Gables Citizen’s Crime Watch to spearheading the establishment of a senior center, numerous beautification projects, and, perhaps most importantly, leading the charge to renovate and reopen The Biltmore Hotel. 

Thomson officially left the commission in 2001, but continued to serve the community through participation on many boards and committees, including the Parking Advisory Board and the Historic Preservation Committee. “I finished with politics,” she says, “But I never finished being involved with the city.”

Unfinished business

And there was unfinished business for Thomson. Tucked away in a box for over 50 years was her transcript from the year she completed at the University of Miami. “Every few years I would have to go for something in that little safe deposit box at home and I would come across my little transcript,” she says, “And I said, one day I'm going to finish this up.”

Through the continuing education program, Thomson was able to return to UM and complete her degree in three years, finishing, in her atypical way, with a drumming class! She graduated cum laude in 2008, with President Donna Shalala sharing a short history of her accomplishments as she walked across the stage for her diploma. “To this very day, sincerely, I consider it one of the, if not the most important aspects of my life after marriage,” she says.

Paving the way

Thomson’s accomplishments, by today’s standards, are extraordinary. When you consider the time in which she grew up, they become even more so. “I come from a different era,” she shares, “so I guess I can see more clearly the giant steps [that women have made.]”

It was a time when there was a Law Wives Club at the University of Miami, because most of the students were men; when there were a total of eight women elected to public office in Dade County; when young women didn’t go off on their own, and often didn’t attend college. Still today, when she is introduced as Mayor Thomson, people sometimes reach out to shake her husband’s hand. Society still thinks about that, that male comes first, in many instances anyway,” she says.

But Thomson paved the way for other women and inspired many along the way—through organizations that encouraged women to run for public office, through talking to constituents and students, and simply through her own work and dedication.

“It is interesting to note that since my election in 1979, there has never again been a time when there was no woman member of the commission,” she says. “It might even be said that my election, 40 years ago this year, created a continual, constant 'woman’s seat' at the commission table. It is balanced.”

To learn more about Dorothy Thomson's story, watch this video