Martha Lee Morris O’Donnell, age 84, passed away on June 4, 2023, in Happy Valley, Oregon.
Martha was born on July 28, 1938, to Phyllis Ada Morris (nee Compton) and Willis Burgess Morris, in Bell, California. The oldest of eight children, she attended Our Lady of Loretto School and St. Joseph School in Los Angeles and Hawthorne, respectively, and Bishop Conaty Memorial High School in Los Angeles, graduating in 1956. After a brief detour during which she considered entering the convent, she attended El Camino College and Long Beach State College, majoring in journalism. Throughout high school and college she wrote and edited for her school publications, winning local awards for her writing, all while helping out with her younger siblings at home.
Always up for an adventure, she took a job in the early 1960s at a U.S. Army base in Schweinfurt, Germany, organizing social events and entertainment for the enlisted soldiers stationed there. In between planning parties and staging talent shows with the troops, she met Sergeant 5th Class John O’Donnell. Their romance grew, fueled in part by their shared excitement with foreign travel. After John completed his term of service and traveled around Europe for a year, they both returned home to the U.S. and married in 1965, settling first in Long Beach and later in Los Angeles.
As a newlywed, she worked at a social service agency in Long Beach, and later as an elementary school teacher (she counted a young Forest Whitaker among her students!). As she became a mother, first to Karen and then to Nicholas, she began working in the field of childbirth education, preparing pregnant couples in Los Angeles for labor, childbirth and taking care of a new baby. A proponent of natural childbirth, she wanted women to have the chance to fully experience the challenges and joys of giving birth together with their partners, rather than alone and unconscious in an operating room, as was the practice of the time. Along the way, while continuing to teach and coach pregnant couples, she decided to become a psychotherapist, and eventually enrolled in a master’s program at California State University Los Angeles, where she graduated in 1990. She became a licensed therapist and began a decades-long practice, counseling children, parents, individuals and families. In the last years of her career, she worked for Airport Marina Counseling Service, supervising young interns and mentoring them as they developed their therapy skills and techniques.
In 1970, Martha and John embarked on a return adventure to Europe, this time accompanied by 3-year-old Karen and Martha’s sister Peggy. They had ordered a brand-new VW camper van, and the plan was to fly to London and then make their way to Germany, where they would pick up their new vehicle and continue driving (and camping) around Europe for a few months. They traveled from England to Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Greece, Romania, and many other locations, before putting the van on a transatlantic ship and flying back to New York. After a stopover in Connecticut to see John’s sister, Anne, they picked up the van once it arrived in New York, and drove it home to Los Angeles. These trips to Europe, especially Germany and Austria, remained a treasured spot in their hearts for the rest of their lives.
Money was often tight as they raised their children and developed their careers, but that love of travel never flagged. As a result, many a family vacation was spent camping along the California coast in that old VW van, in addition to a few trips to the East Coast, family reunions in the Sierra Nevadas, visits to Sea Ranch, California, and trips to visit Martha’s parents in Big Pine, California. In 2016, Karen and her husband, Mark, went with John and Martha on one last European trip, this time to visit John’s ancestral homeland in Ireland.
Music was an uplifting force in Martha’s life. Beethoven and other classical music filled her childhood home. As a teenager Martha sang in her school’s glee club, and as an adult she took piano lessons and joined the choir at her church, St. Paul the Apostle in Los Angeles. Throughout her life, she would never turn down an opportunity to sing with others and enjoy music together. Her love of music transferred to her children as well. Both children had the best music lessons and classes possible, instilling a lifelong love of the arts in both Karen and Nick (the latter becoming a professional musician and teacher himself).
Martha was born to what would become a large family during the waning years of the Great Depression. As a result, she proudly embraced a natural tendency toward thriftiness and independence her entire life. One of the ways this tendency showed itself was in her love of sewing. Why buy something off the rack when you could make a custom-fitted garment yourself? As a result, she made beautiful suits, dresses, skirts, jackets, nightgowns and Halloween costumes for herself, her children and dozens of her nieces’ and daughter’s dolls. No baby in the family could ever arrive in the world without being welcomed by a handmade flannel blanket and matching nightgown.
Imbued with a reverence for family traditions, she celebrated religious holidays with pomp and circumstance, and birthdays, graduations, baby showers and special occasions of all kinds were made extra special by her enthusiasm and personal touches. She shared that joy with others, making sure that young adults in the family, just setting up their households, had their own set of Christmas ornaments as they stepped out into the world.
Martha survived a bout with breast cancer in the early 2000s, and she subsequently raised funds for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation by participating in several annual Avon Foundation walking events.
A devoted Catholic, Martha rarely missed mass and was a dedicated member of the St. Paul the Apostle community. Her faith sustained her throughout her life and especially after the death of her beloved husband, John.
She spent the last three years of her life in the Portland-Vancouver region, so she could be close to her children and their families. She passed away in the presence of her daughter, Karen, and her sister, Jeanne, surrounded by the love and prayers of dozens of family members and friends.
She was predeceased by John, her parents Willis and Phyllis, and her sister Peggy. She is survived by her children, Karen (Mark) and Nicholas (Brenda), grandchildren Madeleine, Nathan, Cale and Ellis, siblings Sedona, Jim, Bill, John, Kathy and Jeanne, and their children and grandchildren.
A funeral mass to celebrate Martha’s life will be held on Friday, June 23 at 4 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Portland.
In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations in Martha’s honor to Airport Marina Counseling Service (https://www.amcshelps.com/donate) and The Dougy Center (https://www.dougy.org/)