Dr. Cheal, a resident at Vi at Silverstone, a Vi and Plaza Companies community, got a late start on her education. But once she set foot on a college campus, she more than made up for lost time.
Cheal’s mother, Leda, had big dreams for her daughter. She’d finished just one year of college before getting married and having children — and wanted to see her daughter do more.
“She always regretted she couldn't finish her education,” said Cheal.
Cheal had done well in school throughout her elementary and high school years, but after marrying her husband Jim, and having three children in the span of three years, it seemed her life might mirror her mother’s.
“My mother kept saying, as my kids were growing up, ‘MaryLou, you really should go back to school,’” she said.
Jim also knew how important a college degree was to his wife. As an Air Corps veteran in World War II, he was able to take advantage of the GI Bill to attend Michigan State University — and he supported Cheal when she decided to do the same.
So at age 38, at her mother’s urging and with her husband’s support, Cheal enrolled at Oakland University, a small college outside of Detroit, Mich. It was the same year her daughter, Cathy, was beginning high school.
“My daughter was a freshman in high school when I started college, and then she became a college freshman at the University of Michigan the same year I started graduate school,” she said. “For four years, we were on the same campus.”
But Cheal didn’t stop after graduate school. Her love of psychology had blossomed during her years in higher education and in 1973, she received her doctorate in psychology from University of Michigan. Sitting in the audience at her graduation: her mother, Leda.
“She came to my graduation,” Cheal said. “She was very proud.”
After graduation, Cheal chose to pursue research over clinical work; focusing in on a variety of biological factors. In 1976 she received a postdoctoral research fellowship that allowed her to study and complete a paper titled, “The Effects of Amphetamines on Brain and Behavior.”
“I was interested in behavior and how to control it — in particular, how brain chemistry affects behavior,” Cheal said. “I did some experiments back then that were different than what anyone else had proposed.”
During her career, Cheal also taught college-level courses in psychology, including a summer course at Harvard University on physiological psychology. She was also an adjunct professor in the Arizona State University department of psychology for more than 30 years.
Prior to her retirement, Cheal was hired as a government contractor to conduct behavioral research on human subjects at the University of Dayton Research Institute at the Air Force Armstrong Laboratory. She accepted the contract at age 68 — exactly thirty years after she began college. Today, some 30-plus years later, some of her psychological research writing is still being cited.
“My career was short compared to a lot of researchers, but it’s a good feeling to know my work is still being used,” Cheal said. “It makes me think that maybe it did have some influence.”
While her scientific writing lives on, Cheal also wants to leave a personal legacy. When her children were growing up during the 1950s, she decided to write a book about her mother, hoping to pass down the stories Leda had loved telling when MaryLou was a child. She calls it simply “the Leda book.”
“After she died, I decided the rest of the family should have these stories — so I wrote it,” she said. The book is full of stories Leda used to tell about her childhood, along with old photographs from her albums.
In the book is one of Cheal’s favorite stories from Leda’s childhood in Michigan. “One day, she fell off the fence she was playing on and broke her arm,” she said. “They took her to town to have it set, and the next day, she climbed the same fence and fell off it again.”
Her mother’s sense of stubbornness and independence, during an era when “women weren’t listened to,” according to Cheal — has stayed with Cheal throughout her life. “She’s always been a big influence on me,” she said.