By Betsy Burke Parker
For 26 years, Nancy Dougherty was the unofficial voice of the National Steeplechase Association, almost always the first person you’d talk to when you rang the NSA’s Fair Hill, Maryland office.
Dougherty retired this spring, but she stayed on a full six months to share her quarter-century of knowledge and experience to help transition new business administrator Emery Taylor and assistant to the racing director Harper McVey.
Her former co-workers say Dougherty, 79, leaves a legacy of kindness, always a calm voice and a steady hand in what can be a pressure-filled role.
“Nancy is not average in any way shape or form,” Taylor says. “She kept a wealth of knowledge in her head as well as on the shared files. We really benefited from her generosity while we transitioned into our new roles.”
“Nan was always the ‘rock’ within the office,” says NSA director of racing Bill Gallo. “She was omnipresent and willing to tackle any task no matter how big or small. She was usually the first voice you heard from the NSA and that voice was welcoming, helpful and willing to assist. If she didn’t know the answer she was quick to find out who did.”
Retired now but for 25 years working alongside Dougherty in the role of assistant racing secretary and office manager, Peter McGivney agrees that “Nan” was important to the association. “As the NSA’s executive secretary, Nancy answered 90 percent of the calls that came in to the office,” McGivney recalls. “Whenever I would pick up the phone and say ‘National Steeplechase, this is Pete,’ the usual response from the person on the other end was ‘where’s Nan?’”
How It Started
Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1942, Dougherty graduated from Wilmington’s Goldey-Beacom College’s School of Business in 1961.
She worked as senior secretary at DuPont, then as secretary for a bank subsidiary president in North Carolina when she moved there with her first husband. When they divorced, and Dougherty moved to Chester County, Pennsylvania, working for an attorney for several years before returning to DuPont.
She married Jack Dougherty in 1979, a natural partnership, she says. “We shared a great love for horses and hounds. His family had the Lewisville Hunt, generations before him.
“Jack put the pack back together when he was a teenager and hunted the hounds up until a few years ago when his health deteriorated.”
They kept 30-40 couple and half a dozen field hunters when the private pack was most active in the old Foxcatcher Hunt territory.
“I like to think we had the best years of hunting,” Dougherty says, open fixtures and lots of sport. Today’s hunting, she says, is increasingly limited by development. “I applaud those who keep soldiering on.
“Foxhunting has always been in my blood: I started hunting at age 11. The only relative who shared that was my great-uncle Charlie, whom I never knew. My mother would tell me that Uncle Charlie on more than one occasion would jump up from the dinner table to turn his hounds out when (he could hear that) neighboring farmers had a chase going.”
From the beginning, there was a direct link from foxhunting to steeplechasing. They attended all the local meets, and Nancy rode some flat races at the point-to-points. She freely admits she “was never brave enough to race over fences – I like to make the excuse that I was wise not to.”
It was an natural step, she says, to make steeplechase a vocation as well as avocation.
In 1995, someone – she doesn’t remember who, told Dougherty NSA was looking to hire a secretary and that she’d be great at it. “The office was 4 minutes down the road from me, so I sent a resume.
“I went for an interview and started the next day.”
Though initially it was to be part-time, “that idea didn’t last long,” Dougherty adds with a chuckle.
It turned into a 26-year career.
She worked with Charlie Colgan, Bill Gallo, Peter McGivney and one other secretary (Patt Rhinesmith, who worked for Colgan). It was interesting work, she says, usually fun but often frenetic and sometimes highly pressurized.
“I don’t think most people realize the amount of work that comes out of the NSA office,” Dougherty says. “We worked together like a well-oiled machine for many years with many a late night. But the work had to be done, and we just had to do it.
“I never minded those late hours (because) everything has to be correct and in order for a race meet to run. There’s no walking away until the work is finished.”
“Nancy is a tireless worker and has a great work ethic,” McGivney notes. “It was a rare occurrence when she was not in the office. She’s like the Eveready Energizer bunny, she just keeps going and going.
“She’d get things done, even if it meant staying late or coming in on the weekend. She was a valuable asset to the NSA.”
“Nan never shied away from work,” Gallo adds. “She was never satisfied until the job was done.”
Three-meet weeks were where Dougherty’s dedication was showcased, though they were long days. “But, we ate lunch at our desks and went right on working,” she recalls the energy of the team focused on what had to get done. “It was a great atmosphere as we were in constant communication, and I always thought we all really enjoyed our work.
“Bill always said we were family. They were good times.”
“For sure, we had a family relationship within the office,” Gallo agrees. “We worked hard, side by side, and supported each other in every way. Occasionally we would celebrate with a glass of wine after work, or have a nice staff dinner in Saratoga if the girls came up for a board meeting. It was always fun, filled with laughter and fond memories.”
“Those two- and three-meet weeks were extra high-pressure,” Dougherty recalls, “but it just got done. We worked great together.”
The spring hunt meet season spilled into summer racing at the major tracks, then back into the fall season. “The only time we had some time to relax a little bit was after the last race meet” in November, Dougherty says. But just as quickly, they’d get into awards-party planning and yearbook production, then it was January and time to get ready for the next spring season.
McGivney points out that steeplechase wasn’t Dougherty’s only passion – she also pursued dog showing and judging at the national level. “One thing I was always amazed at about Nan was, as busy as she was during the week, she would be on the road on the weekends traveling to dog shows around the country either showing or judging,” McGivney says. “I don’t know where she gets her energy, but she certainly has plenty of it.”
Last year, Dougherty slowed down a notch as she began to prepare for retirement. So when she wrote a helpful guide to her duties for whoever would fill her role, she was a little surprised when it ran to pages and pages, and still wasn’t complete.
“When I looked at the job description, it was mind-boggling to think ‘how will one person be able to do it?’
“There’s a lot to this job,” Dougherty says. “You don’t realize it when you’re in it – you just sort of slog away and do it. But when you write it down, you see there’s a lot of detail.”
Many NSA records have been digitized – searchable database and lots of online accounting, but some details can’t be handled that way, Dougherty stresses. “A lot of it requires a person, interaction, conversation.”
NSA business administrator Emery Taylor calls Dougherty “a rock star. She was kind enough to stay on when Harper and I started at NSA in January so we could benefit from her knowledge and expertise.
“Nancy had everything completely organized for us, of course, on a shared file on our server, and she was generous sharing everything she knew, everything she’d learned over the years.”
From Monday entry-taking to Wednesday scratches, from licensing to planning, and from drawing races to providing updated race meet information for horsemen, a lot goes into the daily schedule, adds Harper McVey, assistant to the director of racing.
“Thursday and Friday is for final details and getting documents ready to go to the Saturday races. Sundays, we archive videos and post results.
“Really, Nancy was like a den mother in the office, super-organized, very supportive, really nice.
“I know we miss her, and the horsemen miss her.”
Dougherty misses it, too. “Honestly, I guess I do, and I don’t. It was such a routine for such a long time. I miss the NSA and the staff, the contact with owners, trainers, jockeys, officials and the race meet people.
“The main difference is that now I don’t have to get up and do my own (farm work) early, ‘before work.’ These days, I can just start an hour later if that’s what I feel like.”
McGivney says he’s glad for Dougherty’s retirement, but for another reason. “Nancy and I retired at about the same time,” he explains. “For me, it wouldn’t be the same if I had to go into the office and Nancy wasn’t there sitting at her desk.”
Retirement Isn’t About Sitting Around
Ironically, in retirement Dougherty is as busy as ever, refueling her passion for dog showing and judging. She keeps seven couple of the original Lewisville hounds – PennMarydels, in the kennels.
“My whole life has been a love affair with hunting dogs – my family’s sporting dogs, foxhounds and my own dogs – American Foxhounds, Parson Russell Terriers and Dachshunds,” Dougherty says.
“Through foxhunting friends in Great Britain, I was introduced to the Parson Russell Terrier and was able to import the finest bloodlines which have produced many champions over the past 28 years. I’ve worked all my breeds in the field to natural quarry and have special appreciation for a dog of outstanding quality that can do the job for which it was intended.”
One of her Dachshunds won first award of merit at Westminster, and Dougherty is co-chair of the breed specialty show at the National Dog Show in Oaks, Pennsylvania.
She also has an American Foxhound, now retired from the AKC show circuit, a tri-colored Walker bitch hound and grand champion, Kiarry Says When. Dougherty calls her “Savvy.”
Dougherty is a licensed AKC judge for hound breeds. She likens the dog show community to the steeplechase community, “great people, completely dedicated to the sport.”