From Casting Call to Cattle Call

When opportunity knocks, Nancy Donnell Lilly ’70 opens the door. Opportunity has taken this Scripps international relations major down a variety of unforeseen career paths, from a professional dancer in San Francisco to a cattle rancher in Oregon to her current calling—growing grapes on a vineyard in Sonoma.

“The great thing about Scripps is it prepares you to be ready for anything,” says Nancy.

And ready she’s been. First stop on her career path after Scripps was to San Francisco to dance with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. After a fulfilling career there, Nancy married nuclear physicist Tibor Stefansky, who longed to get out of the lab and see the world.

“We packed up everything, bought a boat, and sailed from Maine to San Francisco by way of Europe and Asia Pacific,” Nancy says. “I learned a lot about being alone by visiting islands on the trip.”

Upon the couple’s return, they decided to buy a cattle ranch in Prairie City, Oregon, and follow her husband’s ranching dreams. Nancy says the couple worked full time, year round, caring for their cattle. She worked as a midwife to 600 mother cows. She gave the shots—even got up in the middle of the night to assist in the calving—and did the bookkeeping. Amidst all this, they were young parents themselves to a son.

In 1984, shortly after the birth of a daughter, Nancy’s father died. She began splitting her time between the Oregon cattle ranch and Nancy’s family property in Sonoma. Just four short years later, Nancy’s husband was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, at which point the couple sold the bulk of their ranch. When Tibor died, in 1991, Nancy sold the rest of the couple’s property and came to live in Sonoma, where she now grows grapes with new husband Tony Lilly.

Under two partnerships, she works with local wineries, which buy her grapes to make and sell wine. She also has a part of her property, which she leases to local dairies and allows cows to graze on the grass for part of the year.

Nancy advises: “You have to be ready for changes. When you think life is going one way, an opportunity comes or something happens that causes you to go in a different direction.”