They always stood out in a crowd. Whether it was among young students proudly displaying their artwork or guests attending a receptions for Dallas area philanthropists, this couple just plain stood out. It wasn’t only because they both had aged with snow white hair and faces that reflected the years. It wasn’t because he seemed even taller than the others as he stood near her wheelchair. It wasn’t even the smiles that had a special glow. Perhaps it was because despite their being married more than 60 years, Edith and Peter O’Donnell Jr. still seemed to have a special aura that is only associated with newlyweds.
But Saturday night the memory of that image lingered for family and friends with the death of 94-year-old Edith.
In addition to having three daughters (Anne, Carol and Ruth), Edith and Peter had a fourth child — philanthropy. Just five years into their marriage, the couple established the O’Donnell Foundation. The seed was planted to grow their child of generosity. Privately they nurtured it for years anonymously, providing funds for area nonprofits. They didn’t need the spotlight; they wanted the light shining on the men, women and children who would benefit from their efforts.
And like any good parents, Edith and Peter were hands-on in providing personal involvement. For instance, 26-year-old bride Edith signed up to volunteer at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art) back in 1952 when it was still at Fair Park. But it wasn’t enough. In 1967 Edith and the late Mitch Jericho founded Young Audiences, which would evolve into Big Thought. Their goal then, as it still is today, was to provide North Texas students and teachers with “the largest arts education program in the country.”
Still another example was the DMA’s “Young Masters” exhibition featuring student art projects resulting from the O’Donnell Foundation’s AP Fine Arts Incentive Program. As the young artists and musicians checked out and admired each others’ works of art at the preview reception, they hardly noticed the stately couple quietly smiling on the side.
Over the years the O’Donnells’ child of philanthropy grew into adulthood fed by more than $750M given to such organizations as the Dallas Museum of Art, the University of Texas, the University of Texas at Dallas, UT Southwestern Medical Center and the Perot Museum of Nature And Science.
Just this past September, the O’Donnell nonagenarians were still giving with a $1.42M gift for the DMA’s Audience-Centered Digital Transformation.
Despite shunning the limelight, the community still recognized their contributions with such awards as TACA’s Silver Cup in 1989 and the Linz Award in 1993.
In the days ahead, 96-year-old Peter will still stand tall among others in the room. Only he won’t have his Edith by his side.
* Photo courtesy of Texas State History Museum Foundation