Dorothy Jean Unitas, 67, ex-wife of Colt quarterback

May 21, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dorothy Jean Unitas, the former wife of Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and a volunteer who helped children at a group home in Timonium, died Saturday after collapsing at her home in the Mays Chapel section of Baltimore County. She was 67.

Family members said the cause of death was undetermined. She suffered from diabetes.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Dorothy Jean Hoelle met her future husband when they were students at St. Justin's High School there.

In his 1964 memoir, Pro Quarterback: My Own Story, written with Ed Fitzgerald and dedicated to his wife, Mr. Unitas recalled their first meeting: They were on a bus bound for a high school basketball game in Johnstown, Pa. She was standing in the aisle, and he offered her his seat - then asked that she save him a seat on the return trip.

They were married Nov. 20, 1954, in Brookline, Pa. She was a telephone operator, and he was attending and playing football at the University of Louisville.

The couple was living in Pittsburgh when she received a telephone call in February 1956 from Don Kellett, Colts general manager, asking her husband to sign a contract. The Pittsburgh Steelers had declined to sign him after a few pre-season scrimmages the previous summer.

When a Colts contract arrived at their home, family members said, she immediately signed it and waited for her husband to come home from his job as a construction company pile driver to add his signature.

The couple moved to Baltimore and had homes on Cold Spring Lane, in the Campus Hills section of Baltimore County and in Lutherville.

Throughout her husband's career, Mrs. Unitas kept scrapbooks of press clippings and preserved his memorabilia. President John F. Kennedy appointed her to his Council on Physical Fitness in 1962.

The couple divorced in 1972.

"She was not a celebrity spouse making appearances at galas and balls," said son Kenneth E. Unitas of Bel Air. "She was a strong person who allowed her children to make their own choices. Even though her marriage broke up, she remained a good friend to my father. She was not a spiteful individual."

"She was really a terrific mother," former Colts defensive tackle Art Donovan said yesterday. "She was a real lady who raised a wonderful family."

Mrs. Unitas volunteered with the Towson Catholic and Calvert Hall high schools' mothers clubs. She also worked with infants at St. Vincent's Child Care Center, a Timonium group home for children with emotional or behavioral problems. She rocked infants whose mothers were addicted to drugs. She also collected hundreds of teddy bears for the children.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Thursday at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, on Ware Avenue in Towson, where she was a member.

She is also survived by three other sons, John C. Unitas Jr. of Baldwin, Robert F. Unitas of Parkville and Christopher M. Unitas of White Hall; a daughter, Janice Ann Unitas-DeNittis of Parkville; a brother, John D. Hoelle, and two sisters, Anna Rader and Catherine Connors, all of Pittsburgh; and six grandchildren.

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