When Kathleen Kilian Dooley was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, she wrote her obituary.

"I really didn't want to read it [at the time]," said her daughter, Tracy Dooley of Coon Rapids. "But I did. … She was very particular about how things were and we probably wouldn't do it right."

So long before Kate Dooley of Inver Grove Heights died May 30 at age 72, she summed up her life in a sentence: "In the mid-70s, Kate realized she could not support her daughters from two marriages by waitressing and her art." So the working single mom went back to school to become a nurse, earning a degree in nursing and a master's in health services administration. Her determination left an indelible mark on three daughters who learned lessons in strength, perseverance and independence.

"She was going to prove that no matter what obstacles got in her way, she was going to make it and she wasn't going to need a man to do it," said daughter Rochelle Dooley of Mounds View.

It wasn't always easy, her daughters said. But she always said: "When you're down, you have to kick yourself in the butt and get right back up. You have to keep going."

Money was tight but "when we were young, we never knew it," said daughter Shannon Labore of Anoka. "She gave up so much for us. There was always food on the table. We always had clothes. She just always took very good care of us."

Sometimes the girls contributed their baby-sitting money to the food bill, and when Kate Dooley was an apartment-building caretaker, they cleaned hallways and mowed the lawn.

"I learned to cook basic meals — Tater Tot hot dish was the first thing I learned to make," said Tracy Dooley.

When their mom studied, they quizzed her on the periodic table, illnesses, treatments and medical terminology.

"That's how I learned vocabulary," Labore said. And when her mother brought home a dead cat to dissect, they learned about bones, she said.

On graduation day, the girls watched their mother receive her diploma. "I was so proud," Tracy Dooley said. "She had worked so hard. My heart could have burst that day."

Before retiring at age 69, Kate Dooley had a variety of nursing jobs, working in intensive care at Mercy Hospital, caring for children with terminal illnesses and patients suffering from AIDS. "She didn't want anyone to be denied good care," Rochelle Dooley said. She also held jobs in public health, case management and numerous management positions.

"It never occurred to me that we had to be a two-­parent family," Labore said. "My mom was both."

She could be tough but she also had a soft spot. She opened the door to the stray cats and bunnies the girls brought home and often left notes, telling her girls to have a good day and signed with a drawing of a face framed by curly hair.

"She always made it to my softball games," Labore said. When a teammate slid into second base and broke her ankle, Kate Dooley ripped a book in half and made a splint held in place with a shirt she tore. "My mom was amazing."

When Labore went to the hospital to give birth, her mother sat with her for 31 ½ hours of labor. "When my daughter was born, we both sobbed," Labore said.

"My mother was a mentor. She was smart, strong and caring. She was a survivor," Labore said. "I wouldn't be who I am today without her."

In addition to her daughters, she is survived by brothers Ken Kilian of Jacobsen, Minn., and Wayne Kilian of Dallas; sisters Marge Perry of Dayton, Minn, and Bernadette Kilian of Mora, Minn., five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.