Ellen O'Donnell
Ellen O'Donnell
Ellen O'Donnell
Ellen O'Donnell

Obituary of Ellen Louise O'Donnell


Ellen O’Donnell Obituary

August 16, 1940-August 10, 2023

Part I, as dictated and edited by Ellen herself a couple months before passing:

Grandma Ellen has left the planet. She doesn’t know where she’s going, but that’s not unusual.

She leaves behind those she loved, her courageous daughter Meghan, her gutsy sister Carol, her fantastic brother Patrick, and her honorary grandchildren, wonderfully creative Aleea and the ebulliently curious Mariah.

There were no black sheep in this Irish family, but she was the gray sheep. She was raised in Michigan by 2 saints, and had 4 siblings. They were highly accomplished, and she was very proud of them. Besides her siblings, she cared for many foster children, whom she dearly loved.

She was drawn to social work because her mother and father were both orphans. Because of their circumstances, they were supposed to be difficult and damaged, but instead were the opposite. They were extremely good and kind to each other and to their children.They idealized parenting/family to the point that their oldest child, Ellen’s sister Kate, assumed the role of the realist and disciplinarian.

After her retirement of almost 50 years of social work with children, she started doing foster care, and that was her real education. Those kids taught her a lot. They came to her under different circumstances, but they were tough as hell, and smart, and abused by the system. They taught Ellen how to fight the system, and how hard that can be. They opened her eyes to something she had never seen before, which is how resilient, and how right they were. Ellen used to think that the rules were right, but through fostering, she saw how wrong many of the rules were, and that they paid no attention to the children’s circumstances. So Ellen learned how to work an impossible system the best she could, a system in which the children were stuck, as minors. She saw kids labeled as wrong and treated as delinquents, when in fact they were good kids stuck in untenable circumstances.

Part II:

Ellen cut a wide swath and had a profound impact on many family members, friends, kids in both classrooms and under foster care, as well as strangers in grocery store lines, thrift stores, and on beaches. She was a great story teller with a big heart; funny, empathetic, adventurous, rebellious, stubborn as heck, kind, forgiving, righteous, smart, moving through life in a constant swirl of engagement.

Her stories contained adventures around the globe, such as teaching journalism as a young woman with zero journalism background in France, getting lost all over Europe in those days in her little triumph spitfire, traveling to India and staying on houseboats with her young daughter, and traveling to Africa and seeing so much beauty with her nephew. But her stories were also about her own family with simple Irish origins, her days at the inception of Child Protective Services in New York City, and of the wonderful kids from classrooms to the foster system, all of them unique, all of them with beautiful gifts she could clearly see that others often seemed to miss.

She was the person to call when you needed a sympathetic ear, but also the person whose ways you could exhaust yourself trying to change. Stop drinking big sodas? No way. Slow down? Good luck. Eat a vegetable? Stay in your lane, Interrupt her morning NY Times read? Well, she might want to listen, but the pages could be heard turning on the other end of the phone.

For many of us, Ellen is probably the person we both laughed and cried with the most. Whenever we see bright flowery patterns, someone dressed in colorful clothes, or a great thrift store shopper, we will think of her. Whenever we feel we have an unsolvable problem with which we need special counsel, we will think of her. Whenever we slurp a coke, indulge in a bit (or much) too much chocolate or crunch on potato chips, we will think of her. Whenever we see someone fearlessly entering the ocean and laugh when they get pummeled, we will think of her. We will carry her in our hearts and hear her in our heads, in that voice of hers filled with wisdom, humor and joy.

Church Service: 11:30 am September 23rd, 2023

Sacred Heart Church, 601 E Fort Lowell Rd, Tucson, AZ 85705

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Aviva Children’s Services:



Memorial Mass

11:30 am
Saturday, September 23, 2023
Sacred Heart Church
601 E Ft Lowell Rd
Tucson, Arizona, United States
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