As we begin this new week, I am sharing sad news, but also celebrating the inspirational life of Citizen Diplomat Ella R. Torrey, who passed away last week at the age of 94.
Ella was executive director of Citizen Diplomacy International, under our previous name, the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia, for a decade.
A dynamic and innovative executive, Ella launched Philadelphia as a key city for guests of the U.S. Department of State’s leadership programs;. She grew IVC to be the largest citizen diplomacy organization in the United States, at the time, serving over 4,000 international visitors a year who were seeking business, cultural and government connections in the Philadelphia region.
A key accomplishment during her leadership was establishing the first telephone hotline language bank, staffed by volunteers, which provided translation services in 30 different languages to hospitals, the police and others in need.
She also created the Compass program, now Young Diplomats, engaging a new generation of Philadelphians in foreign affairs.
A remarkable life – advancing international peace and fundamental human rights.
Just three weeks before beginning her studies at Bennington College, Ella’s older brother Louis was killed during World War II. This was the defining moment when Ella decided that war is not the answer. She spent the next 50 years of her career working toward a more peaceful world.
In 1948, after leaving graduate school only six weeks before graduation, Ella took her first international job working at the Chicago Tribune’s bureau in Paris. She later became an editor of Al Misri, then Egypt’s largest daily newspaper.
Her Paris press and diplomatic connections led to a position as the information officer for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, where she reported on meetings of the Security Council, the General Assembly, and other U.N. committees. She was at the heart of policy makers who were working on major U.S. policy issues, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the unification of western German states into the Federal Republic of Germany.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Ella was soon promoted to serving as an aide for Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been appointed by President Truman as a U.S. delegate to the U. N. working on the Human Rights Commission. Ella handled correspondence, edited and scheduled speeches and briefed visitors and the international press.
One of the high points of her career was December 10, 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was unanimously passed at 3 o’clock in the morning. All the delegates rose to give a standing ovation to a single delegate, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
In 2015, Ella shared stories of her experience with Mrs. Roosevelt at the Opening Session of the U.N. Educators Conference on Human Rights.
“Mrs. Roosevelt used to always say that you find yourself by serving others,” and that’s what Ella went on to do.
Making Philadelphia an International City
After leaving the U.N., Ella created high school programs for the World Affairs Councils in Providence, Rhode Island, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
In 1969, Ella moved to Philadelphia with her husband and four children. From 1971 to 1977, she served the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia as director of community affairs, leading numerous cultural exchange tours to the Soviet Union, China, and Nepal.
From 1977 to 1987, as the executive director of Citizen Diplomacy, Ella worked hand-in-hand with Fred Heldring, Chairman and CEO of Philadelphia National Bank to inspire Philadelphia’s leaders to become involved in international affairs. Thanks to her commitment and vision, Philadelphia established and expanded Sister City relationships with Tianjin, China; Incheon, Korea; Douala, Cameroon; and Kobe, Japan. In 1984, Ella led IVC’s first trip to West Africa, visiting Senegal and The Gambia.
Citizen Diplomacy International would not be the organization we are today without Ella’s passion and vision, as two of our former presidents both noted.
“The nature of the work Ella created was extraordinary. She was dynamic, enthusiastic and made each person feel as though her or his contribution was paramount. We had a sense that we were making history through her. She made you laugh. She made us all feel that our work was very important.” – Sandy Choukroun
“She was the most amazing mentor, supporter, and booster of my leadership of Citizen Diplomacy. It was like having a second mother.” – Nancy Gilboy
Upon her retirement, Ella focused her volunteer activities as a board member and activist. She was a founding member of the Philadelphia Committee of Foreign Relations and was a member of Global Philadelphia. In 2015, Ella received the U.N. Human Rights Hero Award from the U.S. Mission to the UN for her 50 years of service. At age 90, Ella presented on human rights in a virtual conference with educators from all over the world and was interviewed at WHYY.
What can we all learn from Ella?
In her own words to students at UN Day:
“Each of you can look around your neighborhood, your school, and your surroundings to find opportunities to make sure every person is aware of his or her rights and freedoms.“
P.S. If you want to know more about Ella Torrey’s fascinating life, you can read these articles:
- Ella King Russell Torrey, who dedicated her life to peace and human rights, dies at 94, by Bonnie L. Cook, Philadelphia Inquirer.
- The Roads We’ve Travelled — Interview with Ella Torrey, WHYY
- She was an aide to Eleanor Roosevelt, Ella Torrey: 50 years working for international peace, by Jane Lenel, Chestnut Hill Local
- Member Profile Global Philadelphia
- Video Address to 2015 Opening Session of the UN Educators Conference on Human Rights
- ‘At 91, recalling Rockettes’ tryout, Roosevelt connection‘ by Sue Ann Rybak, Chestnut Hill Local
- 12th Annual Human Rights Summit, United for Human Rights
- ‘YHRI Received A Letter From Mrs. Roosevelt’s Former Assistant‘, Youth for Human Rights International
Gifts in honor of Ella R. Torrey may be made to Citizen Diplomacy International, Pipeline Philadelphia, 30 S. 15th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102 or noted in your donation at www.cdiphila.org/donate.