Ellen McConnell Blakeman of Burr Ridge, Illinois, passed away peacefully on February 11, 2018, after a twelve-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. She eschewed formality, and always said, “Just call me Ellen.”
Ellen had the distinction of breaking a 188-year tradition when, in 1971, she and two other young women became the first females to join the ranks of pages in the United States Senate. Ellen, a 16 year-old junior in high school at the time, was appointed by Illinois’ senior US Senator, Charles Percy (R). Sens. Jacob Javits (R-NY) and Fred Harris (R-OK) appointed girls to be pages at the same time. They faced opposition in the tradition-bound Senate, but after subcommittee hearings, floor debate and a vote of the entire Senate, the U.S. Senate ultimately agreed that the gender barrier should fall. Percy’s confidence was justified, as Ellen was ultimately named as “floor boy,” essentially the captain of the Senate Pages. In recent years, she was instrumental in organizing and managing the Capitol Page Alumni Association, of which she was a life member.
Ellen was an outstanding student, athlete (swimming and marathon running), speaker, seamstress, and musician (vocal, piano and oboe). She earned a Communications degree at the University of Illinois with near-perfect marks, all while she was very active in the Delta Delta Delta sorority and a manager of the student-led organization that hosted concerts and other performances on campus.
After college, Ellen had a successful career in public relations with Burson Marsteller. Her PR specialty was crisis management, which she discovered suited her personality when she was on the team that managed the high-profile Tylenol poisoning case in Chicago in 1982. The Tylenol case is considered the gold standard for crisis management. While at Burson Marsteller, Ellen and her team won the Silver Anvil Award for excellence in public relations.
She was an energetic volunteer, serving many community organizations, including serving on Boards for public schools, a child care center and even a veterinary care center for a local shelter for cats. Ellen also mentored countless young people, using her boundless strategizing skills and enviable network to help young people get started in their careers and to bring people together.
In 2006, shortly after Ellen’s father, Dr. David McConnell, DVM, passed away from ALS, she was diagnosed with the same horrific disease for which there is no cure. Ellen lived with ALS for 12 years, which is a testament to her indomitable will and strength. In a partnership with her brother in 2011, Ellen co-founded “A Long Swim,” a nonprofit that both borrows the ALS acronym and is dedicated to raising funds for collaborative ALS research using open water and marathon-distance swimming.
Since its founding, A Long Swim has raised $500,000 for collaborative ALS research by sponsoring swims of the English Channel, Tampa Bay, Catalina Channel, Manhattan Island and the Molokai Channel. In addition, A Long Swim’s open water swim events in the Chicago area hosted more than 500 swimmers in 2017. A Long Swim is planning an open water swim in 2018 in the Chicago River, which will be first of its kind in more than 100 years.
Ellen is survived by her sons, Bennett and Brenten Blakeman, as well as a sister, Martha McConnell, a brother Douglas McConnell, a sister-in-law Susan McConnell, her mother, Bonnie McConnell and an uncountable number of friends and colleagues.
In lieu of flowers, donations are welcomed to A Long Swim at 110 East Main Street, Barrington, Illinois 60010, or www.ALongSwim.org.
MARATHON SWIMMING FOR A CAUSE
A Long Swim designs and manages open water swimming events raising funds for ALS collaborative world class research. Everyone loves the story.
A Long Swim is organizing a competitive open water swim to be held in the Chicago River. The Chicago River is a unique venue because it flows through the heart of the most vibrant city in the world.
The video above introduces the proposed route of the Chicago River Swim, and provides glimpses of urban swims in Amsterdam, New York and Portland, Oregon. It captures the excitement, the buzz and the feelings of the accomplishments of the swimmers and the spectators at those events.
Doug McConnell, with the help of his A Long Swim Team, became only the 48th person over age 50 to swim the English Channel, in 14 hours that were divided between heavy waves and pitch black darkness.
The success of the English Channel swim has inspired the A Long Swim Team to continue with marathon swims, including the 24-mile length of Tampa Bay, the 21-mile distance of the Catalina Channel in California, and a 29-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan Island in New York City. The swims of the English Channel, the Catalina Channel and Manhattan Island make up the "Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming," of which Doug was the 89th person to complete, and only the 15th person to complete all over the age of 50.
A Long Swim has raised $500,000 for ALS research, dedicated to the groundbreaking and collaborative research at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, one of the top ALS research laboratories in the world. On the very day that Doug finished his English Channel crossing, Northwestern made a breakthrough announcement of the discovery of the common cause of all forms of ALS, and has accelerated its pace of discoveries since then.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” Nelson Mandela