In Memoriam - OLLI Member Erna MacDonnell

In Memoriam - OLLI Member Erna MacDonnell

Helping Others Get Involved with OLLI at OU

“Launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” —Henry David Thoreau

By the time Erna MacDonnell enrolled in her first OLLI course, she had led a full life by any measure.

Born in Iceland in 1943, she graduated from college in Scandinavia and worked as a model before moving to California in 1964, where she worked as a senior buyer for several technology firms. In California, she piloted her own boat around the San Francisco Bay area, flew vintage airplanes and once tried to buy a lighthouse. She was fluent in five languages (English, Icelandic, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian).

In 1981 she moved to Oklahoma, married Ken MacDonnell and began the 30 happiest years of her life. She soon went to work for Shaklee and later worked at the OU Couch Cafeteria, before retiring in 2004. Her family and friends remember her elegant sense of style, her effortless poise, her sly and often quirky wit and her remarkable gourmet culinary skills. Anyone meeting Erna for the first time was struck by her musical laughter and the charming Icelandic accent that she never lost.

So, what kind of OLLI courses would such a talented and accomplished woman with such broad life experiences find interesting? Erna's sense of adventure, and her wish to expand her intellectual horizons, knew no bounds. Her first OLLI course was on British mystery novels. Although she was already an avid reader, she wanted to deepen her knowledge of the genre. Her last OLLI course, taken after she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer that would take her life in a few short years, was calligraphy. This was a new area of interest, and the beautiful, handmade cards she sent to people during the final phase of her life will be cherished by those lucky enough to have received one.

Erna embraced OLLI courses because they could increase the breadth and depth of her knowledge. No matter what somebody’s life experiences or education might be, OLLI courses allow anyone to deepen their knowledge of a familiar subject or explore an unfamiliar one.

The transcendental writer Henry David Thoreau once urged his readers to, “launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment,” and he said of himself that he, “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and… learn what it had to teach, and not, when [he] came to die, discover that [he] had not lived.”

This was her unspoken credo, and she would be pleased to know that others might use the recently established Erna Jona MacDonnell Scholarship Fund to enroll in OLLI courses that allow them to live deeper lives or launch themselves on new waves.

The Erna Jona MacDonnell Scholarship Fund has been established to provide OLLI at OU Memberships to age 50+ learners, so that they may enroll in OLLI at OU courses. The scholarship is need-based, and awards are decided by committee. Those interested in applying for the scholarship should contact the OLLI at OU office by calling (405) 325-3488 or email

OU logo

Chris Elliott

Chris Elliott serves as the director for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Oklahoma.