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Local News

An extraordinary life: Plainfield woman and former Joliet teacher lived to serve

Plainfield woman and former Joliet teacher lived to serve

Photo provided
Mary O'Donnell
Photo provided Mary O'Donnell

PLAINFIELD – Ginger O’Donnell of Plainfield recalled the beautiful boy with a behavior disorder who was a student of her sister Mary O’Donnell.

Mary was a teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Joliet. Another staff member insisted on taking the boy to the library, despite Mary’s objections that she should walk him there, Ginger said.

Soon afterward, Mary was summoned to the library. The boy was crouched on top of a filing cabinet. She spoke a few quiet words to the boy and he came down.

“She never lost her temper, but one look and you knew she meant business,” Ginger said. “She was a very laidback person and she just exuded love, but in her quiet way. … Kids respected her and wanted to please her.”

Mary often tutored fellow students at the former St. Francis Academy in Joliet (now Joliet Catholic Academy). She went on to study chemistry at what is now the College of St. Francis because she liked Sr. Joan, the chemistry professor, Ginger said.

But she never went into chemistry.

“She decided she liked teaching better,” Ginger said. “So she decided to become a teacher.”

When Lewis University in Romeoville offered a master’s degree in special education, Mary, as well as Ginger, enrolled, although Mary did not intend to become a special education teacher.

“She wanted to help everyone in the classroom,” Ginger said. “She figured she could do that if she had a degree in special education.”

In the early 1950s, both Mary and Ginger were accepted to teach military children at the U.S. Army Headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany. Ginger had taught there for two years, liked it and persuaded Mary to join her.

Ginger taught two more years, and Mary taught for two. Mary was then asked to teach for two years at the U.S. Air Force School at RAF Lakenheath, England. Afterward, Mary taught at Cunningham until she retired, Ginger said.

That wasn’t the end of Mary’s service – just the beginning of new opportunities. She was a longtime member of the Visitation & Aid Society in Joliet. She also was a founding member of Joliet Area Community Hospice and served as its treasurer for 16 years, Ginger said.

It was Mary’s way of reaching out to people with cancer. Many in her family had died from cancer, Ginger said. Mary herself had a double mastectomy due to breast cancer in her early 40s.

“She didn’t want people to worry when they went into the hospice program, that when they got home, they would have every kind of care,” Ginger said.

Mary also had an artistic side. She was an accomplished chef, grew an impressive garden – roses were her specialty – stitched beautiful needlework and won a dance contest by dancing the Russian Cossack. With Ginger, Mary traveled extensively.

Mary was 92 when she died Jan. 27. She was profoundly blessed, Ginger said, but not just because of her long life or many talents.

“She realized every day that she was loved by her nieces, nephews and friends,” Ginger said. “She was just a wonderful sister.”

• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or

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