Slater and Ames, Iowa
Jacqueline Helen (Stratton) O’Donnell, the mother of all the years, died on the evening of Saturday, December 30, 2017, at the Bickford Cottage assisted living facility in Ames, Iowa. She was just eight days short of her 94th birthday. Nine of her 14 living children, a granddaughter and a son-in-law and daughter-in-law were with her.
The body has been cremated. A memorial service will be held later this year.
Mrs. O’Donnell, who until recently lived in Slater, shaped the lives of her children and their offspring and contributed to her community in ways that will reverberate for decades. In the early 1960s she began an 18-year career as a postal clerk and became friends with nearly everyone in town, often learning their personalities, problems and histories. In retirement, she helped found a local historical association and museum and served as an officer, spending hours organizing documents and developing exhibits. Mrs. O’Donnell was a volunteer first responder and also helped develop the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail from Slater to Huxley and beyond.
But she was most proud of the family she raised with her husband, Augustine Daniel O’Donnell: eight boys and six girls. (Another daughter, Nora, died shortly after birth in November 1966.) All 14 attended college, an aspiration Mr. and Mrs. O’Donnell had always held for their children. Many have advanced degrees. “And not a bum among them,” as Mrs. O’Donnell sometimes said.
She was born Jacqueline Stratton on January 7, 1924, on a farm near Raymond in southeast Nebraska, the daughter of Isaiah “Jack” Stratton and the former Yvonne Marie Ernestine Pavard, whom Mr. Stratton had met in France during World War I. The family, including two older brothers, struggled to survive through the Depression. Mr. Stratton worked a series of jobs and farmed. Food often was short, but Yvonne Stratton was adept at stretching a meal, gardening and canning, teaching her children a resourcefulness and work ethic they employed later in life.
As a teenager, Mrs. O’Donnell was named the healthiest girl in Nebraska. She graduated from Stockham High School and attended York College for a year. She taught primary school for a year and worked briefly at a California airplane factory during World War II.
Mrs. O’Donnell was a clerk at Harvard Air Base, an Army Air Force training center in southeast Nebraska, when she met her future husband, a handsome sergeant who had served as an airplane mechanic in New Guinea and was awaiting his discharge. After a brief, intense courtship, they married on August 1, 1945.
Mr. O’Donnell trained in the building trades at Iowa State College in Ames and then worked in construction. The couple (now with three children) moved to Slater in 1949. They lived in a succession of houses, each bigger than the previous one to accommodate more (and more) children until 1961, when they found a foursquare with ample bedrooms.
For four decades, Mrs. O’Donnell devoted herself to her husband and family. She sewed dozens of shirts and dresses, raised and canned vegetables and oversaw homework and prayers. She was her children’s first and best teacher, finding small and large lessons in everything from insects to stars. Each child got as much attention as he or she needed, plus a little more.
In the mid-1950s, A.D. O’Donnell got a job with Capp Homes, makers of pre-cut houses, and for years lived away from home during the week as he helped construct the buildings on site. By the early 1960s the couple had 13 children whom Mrs. O’Donnell would shepherd alone (albeit with help from the oldest ones) while her husband was away.
The couple wrote each other regularly and their letters provide insights into their deep love. In 1963, Mr. O’Donnell wrote this from a Fairfield motel:
“I hope this tells you what I’ve thought to myself so many times. How proud of my whole big bunch I am. How glad that I can provide you with a nice, big house that you all can be happy in. Also, how proud I am of you that you look so nice to me, not in spite of 13 children but because of them. … You are the mother of all the years.”
Mrs. O’Donnell replied: “I only hope that when the kids are all raised and on their own that you & I can have a few years to get to know each other again, to be able to talk together without interruption, to be able to enjoy a few fruits of our labor.”
Mr. O’Donnell later worked at Capp Homes’ Des Moines plant, allowing him to come home each night. He developed Parkinson’s disease, a condition that shortened the years the couple hoped to enjoy together. Mrs. O’Donnell cared for her husband until his death in January 1997. She often said her one regret was that her husband didn’t live to see his children’s success and to know many of his grandchildren.
For most of the next 20 years, Mrs. O’Donnell volunteered and traveled, often with her daughter, Mary, who came to live with her in Slater in 2010.
Mrs. O’Donnell rarely spoke a harsh word of others. Her strongest oath was “Lord, give me strength,” uttered only when managing a family of 14 verged on the impossible. She was an amateur botanist and ornithologist, able to identify any wild plant or bird. Words cannot describe how much her wisdom, caring and love will be missed.
Survivors include six daughters: Louise and Josephine “Jodi” O’Donnell of Ames, Mary O’Donnell and Yvonne (David) Raes of Slater, Margaret O’Donnell (Rick Herrman) of Ft. Davis, Texas, and Jacqueline O’Donnell of Davenport; eight sons: Michael (Cynthia Michaelson) of Northfield, Minnesota, Daniel (Joyce) of Loveland, Colorado, Robert (Robin) of Payson, Arizona, Charles (Helen) of Westerville, Ohio, Patrick (Nancy) of Sioux Center, Thomas (Paula Mohr) of Ames, Alphonsus (Patricia) of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and Cole (Peggy) of East Moline, Illinois; 32 grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren. Apart from her husband and a daughter, Mrs. O’Donnell was preceded in death by her parents, brothers Marcel and Walter Stratton, and two grandchildren.
Memorials may be made to the Slater Area Historical Association, Box 487, or Friends of the Slater Library, Box 598, both in Slater, Iowa 50244; or St. Malachy’s Catholic Church, 405 Gerald St., Madrid, Iowa 50156.