Nancy Dillon was a fierce advocate for Minnesotans experiencing mental illness, bolstering the often overlooked psychiatric nursing field in Minnesota's health care system. As a teacher, volunteer, mental health nurse working with veterans and the state's first-ever chief nurse executive at the Department of Human Services, Dillon helped reform the field and make mental health a priority.

"She elevated the status of psychiatric nursing," said Merrie Kaas, a longtime colleague and friend who teaches at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. "She wanted psychiatric nursing to not be invisible. She was always concerned about access to care and equal opportunities for everyone."

Dillon, 74, of Brooklyn Center, died Dec. 13 after years of battling Parkinson's disease and other health issues.

Feisty and boisterous, she never lost sight of her New York roots — or accent, at times. Born and raised in Queens, Nancy Jo Behling was one of three daughters of George Christel "Chris" Behling and Myrtle "Mickey" Carolina Henning Behling. After meeting Bob Dillon at a wedding, the couple married in 1974 and moved to Minnesota in 1983, where Dillon quickly became an avid Twins and Vikings fan.

As the middle child, Dillon was used to being a nurturing mediator, making her the perfect fit for nursing, said her daughter, Cassie Dillon of Minneapolis.

"She was a remarkable woman," she said, adding that her mother had a "bright spirit" and tried to reduce the stigma of mental health, making it OK to talk about feelings and emotions. "She always had a desire to help people."

After 20 years as a nurse at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center, Nancy Dillon landed the newly created role of chief nurse executive at the Department of Human Services, overseeing nurses at state group homes and other state facilities. To put staff at ease, Dillon often showed up with cookies on her visits to facilities, Cassie Dillon said.

"She cared very much about making sure nurses had a voice," she added.

Dillon helped design a new system for patients to get treatment closer to home, taught part-time at the U's nursing school and volunteered on the board for the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She pushed for increased professionalism in nursing and developed training and policies on workforce boundaries, becoming a national expert in the area, Kaas said.

"She was like the whole package," Kaas added, saying that Dillon often quipped: " 'Patients don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care.' And that was Nancy. It was really about the relationship."

Outside work, she loved singing in church choirs, classical music and cross-stitch, and was an avid reader, insisting on gifting a book to family members each year to encourage education.

She also had a "wicked sense of humor," said NAMI board member Pat Seppanen; at one of the nonprofit's galas, attendees sported fictional superhero costumes, but Dillon led the charge for her and five women to dress as Executive Director Sue Abderholden, sporting blonde wigs.

Beatric Officer, another board member, said Dillon was warm and inviting, as if you knew her for years.

"She was no-nonsense," Officer said, adding that Dillon pushed to address disparities in mental health. "When I think of equity and inclusion I think of Nancy because that's how she was."

Dillon is survived by her husband, daughter, son Matthew Dillon of Minnetrista, sister Jill Padua of Narrowsburg, N.Y., and two grandchildren. Services are postponed due to the pandemic.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141