If Debbie Monolo stands in Forest Park, she can almost see both of her worlds.
To the east lies Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where she has worked for 38 years. And if she looks south, she can see “The Hill,” where she co-owns a boutique and plays an integral role in the vibrant local Italian community.
When Monolo’s grandparents left Sicily in the 1920s to settle in St. Louis, they believed that if someone worked and studied hard, anything was attainable.
“The whole goal was that your children could have a better life,” says Monolo, assistant dean for academic affairs and registrar at the School of Medicine.
Monolo’s father sold insurance and investments. Her mother, a homemaker, also worked as a seamstress.
They sent Monolo to Rosati-Kain High School, an all-girls Catholic high school on Lindell Boulevard, where she excelled and played flute.
At Rosati-Kain, she met another Italian girl, Marie Cuccia, who would play a large role in her life. Cuccia introduced her to Joe Monolo, the man who became her husband, when the three were students at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
The two friends also realized a lifelong dream when they opened the doors to an Italian shop on The Hill in November 2003.
After graduating from the University of Missouri with a psychology degree in 1973, she and Joe married and had three children in four years. Monolo learned of a job in the registrar’s office at Washington University School of Dental Medicine from her husband’s family, who knew the late Genevieve “Jean” Gaines. Gaines worked in the registrar’s office on the Danforth Campus for many years.
Monolo became assistant to the registrar at the dental school in 1973 and was promoted through the ranks to registrar and financial aid officer. She became familiar with university culture and how to serve students from Ann Leonard, the dental school’s registrar when she was hired.
“Ann Leonard was a very special person and really took me under her wing,” Monolo says. “She taught me that it’s important to define your role and how it fits into the larger mission of the university.”
When the dental school closed in 1991, Monolo was named associate registrar of the School of Medicine. She became assistant dean for academic affairs and registrar in 1994.
Monolo’s colleagues at the medical school describe her as a hidden treasure who is compassionate, thoughtful and well-organized.
“Much of what Debbie does is inconspicuous because it works so smoothly, so dependably and so well,” says W. Edwin Dodson, MD, associate vice chancellor and associate dean for admissions and continuing medical education.
“Our school and the students past and present whom we serve are lucky to have her. There’s none better.”
Devoted to students
As medical school registrar, Monolo schedules classes, maintains class lists, enforces rules for entering or leaving classes and keeps a permanent record of grades. Additionally, she handles schedules for third-year clinical rotations.
In another role, Monolo is chair of the central region admissions subcommittee. She makes several recruiting trips a year and helps decide which students from the central region will be accepted into the medical school.
Koong-Nah Chung, PhD, associate dean and director of the Office of Medical Student Research, says Monolo is dedicated to making the medical school outstanding.
“As the registrar, she is an inspirational authority on student affairs,” Chung says. “As the chair of the central subcommittee on admissions, she is a trusted judge of character.”
Monolo says students now are different from the ones she encountered 20 years ago. She attributes the difference to the advantages current students have had, including the opportunities to travel. The students she interacts with today have a much greater breadth and depth of experiences.
Faculty and staff who know Monolo say she has a great sense of the medical school’s history, but her tenure doesn’t stop her from being enthusiastic about its future.
“She does not stop coming up with new ways to support students and the educational programs,” says Leslie Kahl, MD, former associate dean for student affairs in medicine. “She has a wonderful creativity that I found invaluable in the 17 years we worked together.”
Monolo says she feels fortunate to work in admissions, which has a supportive and encouraging environment.
“It is a great atmosphere,” Monolo says. “We are given challenges, but we’re always given the tools and resources to handle them.”
Accepting another challenge
When her children left home, Monolo decided to take on another challenge by opening Girasole Gifts & Imports. From a storefront on Marconi Avenue, across from St. Ambrose church, she and Cuccia and their families sell ceramics, Murano glass, books, jewelry and other Italian items.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” says Monolo, who works at the store every Saturday and helps with the buying.
“We tried to make contacts from our trips to Italy to fill up the store. When someone asked us if we were going to Market, we had no idea what they were talking about.”
They also bought the building where the store is located and eventually gutted the building for renovation. After many ups and downs, and much more money than they planned to spend, the building has six tenants, and the store is thriving.
Further embracing her heritage, Monolo is vice president of the 90-year-old St Louis Italian Club. She values the culture, history and language that she has been exposed to through the club’s monthly dinners and lectures.
“It’s given me a much deeper appreciation of the culture of Italy and its fascinating history,” she says. “Each region has specific backgrounds and traditions. Being involved in the club also has given me a better understanding of my ancestors and where I came from.”
For her legacy at the medical school, Monolo hopes students remember her as someone who was fair and supportive of them as they hit obstacles along the way.
Monolo also strives to create a legacy for her family through the shop and by passing on her heritage to her children, two of whom live on The Hill.
“I feel as if I’ve gotten two advanced degrees — one at Washington University from being here a long time and one in Italian culture, language and people,” she says.
Fast facts about Debbie Monolo
Title: Assistant dean for academic affairs and registrar at the School of Medicine
Hobbies: Co-owner of Girasole Gifts & Imports, vice president of St. Louis Italian Club, cooking, traveling to Italy
Favorite places in Italy: Rome and Vernazza
Family: Husband, Joe, psychologist; daughter Christina, 35, speech and language pathologist; son, Joe, 31, real estate appraiser; daughter Angie, 31, marketing and advertising executive