By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
5:47 PM EST, November 13, 2013
Eleanor E. O'Donnell, a retired civil engineer who tutored Hispanic immigrants, died Nov. 7 of heart failure at her Tuscany-Canterbury home. She was 96.
The daughter of an ironworker and a homemaker, the former Eleanor Elizabeth Doney was born and raised in Philadelphia, where she graduated in 1935 from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls' High School, which was the first Roman Catholic high school for girls in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
After graduating from high school, she earned her nursing degree in 1939 from Temple University and did home care with the Bon Secours Sisters for seriously ill patients. She later worked in manufacturing, losing two and a half fingers in an industrial accident.
Just before the outbreak of World War II, Mrs. O'Donnell moved to Detroit, where she went to work as a riveter at the Ford Motor Co.'s sprawling River Rouge complex, building aircraft.
"She returned to Philadelphia before war was officially declared and met her future husband, Francis J. 'Frank' O'Donnell," said her son, Brother Frank O'Donnell, a Marianist Brother who was principal of Cardinal Gibbons High School from 1969 to 1975.
With the start of World War II, Mrs. O'Donnell worked in a defense plant making electronic equipment. When the war ended, she took a job at the Philco plant in Philadelphia in the late 1940s working on the assembly line building TV sets.
In the early 1950s, she began working as a draftsperson in the city of Philadelphia's Streets Department.
In 1961, Mrs. O'Donnell earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's degree in government administration in 1965 from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
"She earned her civil engineering degree while attending night school for eight years while working full time during the day for the Streets Department," said Brother O'Donnell, a Rosedale resident who is a social justice attorney.
"Her engineering work for Philadelphia involved designing environmental elements for city incinerators and constructing streets and bridges," said her son.
The last project Mrs. O'Donnell worked on as a member of the design team was the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's nine-mile airport extension that opened in 1985 and connected downtown Philadelphia with Philadelphia International Airport.
Mrs. O'Donnell was elected the first female president of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Public Works Association and was a longtime member of the Society of Women Engineers and the Engineers Club in Philadelphia.
After retiring in the early 1980s, the former Manayunk, Pa., resident moved with her husband to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she spent a decade volunteering with Lighthouse, a national organization that assists the blind.
"She made audiotapes of books and magazines, and because of her skill as an engineer, she was often asked to create tapes of textbooks for blind college students where she would not only read the words, but described the figures, diagrams and illustrations," her son said.
After her husband's death in 1992, Mrs. O'Donnell moved to the Charlestown Retirement Community.
"She only stayed there six months before moving to Tuscany-Canterbury. She said there were too many old people there, and at the time she was in her 80s," her son said, with a laugh.
Mrs. O'Donnell volunteered for years tutoring Hispanic immigrants in English at the Esperanza Center in Fells Point.
"What a friend she was and such an extraordinary woman. And what a wonderful English as a second language teacher," said Sister Mary Neil Corcoran, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and former director of the Hispanic Apostolate, now the Esperanza Center.
"She was older when she came to us but wanted to give back. She didn't speak Spanish but she connected well with the students. She was so gracious and could work with people at any level," said Sister Mary Neil, a retired Spanish teacher who taught at Mount St. Agnes College and Loyola University Maryland and still volunteers with the Esperanza Center.
"Eleanor was a very quiet and modest person. She told us very little about her background," she said. "And the students knew she was interested in them, and she was so good at recognizing how important each person was."
In addition to her volunteer work, Mrs. O'Donnell was also a strong advocate for voting rights and interested in the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church.
"She was an avid reader who was interested in the life of the Catholic Church, and would often pass on articles to her local pastor which advocated for more participation of lay people within church leadership," her son said.
Mrs. O'Donnell was an accomplished seamstress who designed and handmade all of her own clothes, including her wedding gown.
Mrs. O'Donnell left her body to the Maryland Anatomy Board.
A Mass will be offered at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation, 5212 McCormick Ave. in Rosedale.
In addition to her son, Mrs. O'Donnell is survived by a niece and a nephew.
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