Obituary: Ella King Russell Torrey, human rights activist, environmentalist


Ella King Russell Torrey, 94, a 51-year resident of Chestnut Hill, a foreign affairs and human rights expert, an aide to Eleanor Roosevelt, and passionate activist, died at Chestnut Hill Hospital due to complications from the coronavirus on April 14. She lived at Cathedral Village in Roxborough for 15 years.

Known as Ella, she was born in Philadelphia on August 7, 1925. She was the eldest daughter of Norman F.S. Russell and Ella D. Eisenbrey Russell. She grew up in Edgewater Park, N.J. and graduated from the Moorestown Friends School and the Agnes Irwin School.

After graduation, she and a friend decided to go to New York and try out for the Rockettes. They told her to go home and work on her wings (a tap dance move done on your toes). Then, they would hire her.

The following week her father took her to visit Bennington College in Vermont, where Martha Graham taught ballet and modern dance.

In March 1944, just three weeks before she began her studies at Bennington, her 20-year-old brother Louis, a Marine Air Corps fighter pilot, was shot down trying to rescue a buddy who had disappeared in the Pacific Ocean.

“This was when Ella decided war was not the answer, and she wanted to dedicate her life to peace, diplomacy, and international relations,” said her daughter Elizabeth Torrey.

After graduating from Bennington, with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1947, she studied English at The University of Pennsylvania. However, just weeks away from earning her master’s degree, she decided to move to France where she got a job as a fashion editor at the Chicago Tribune bureau in Paris. Shortly after, she became an editor at Al Misri, then Egypt’s largest newspaper.

“She was one step closer to her interest in the United Nations, which, in Paris at the time, was dealing with the Arab-Israeli issue,” her daughter Elizabeth said

When she returned home in 1949, she got a job working at the U.S. Mission to the U.N., a branch of the State Department in New York. Later, she was named Public Information Officer for Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been appointed by President Truman as a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations.

As an information officer, she wrote secret and unclassified reports on all of the Security Council, General Assembly and U.N. Committee meetings, which were sent to agencies and embassies overseas to help formulate U.S. policies.

Torrey said Roosevelt had an incredibly good sense of humor. “The delegates would often say our meetings are too long, and she would often say in her quiet little way, ‘Well, if you want to have shorter meetings, make shorter speeches.’”

After Mrs. Roosevelt left the U.N., Torrey worked for U.N. Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

In 1954, she married Carl “Buzz” Torrey, and they moved to Cambridge, Mass. After moving to Bethlehem, PA, she became director of local World Affairs Councils and started model United Nations programs for area high school students. Her final move with her husband and four children was to Chestnut Hill in 1969. As the community affairs director of the World Affairs Council, she helped Philadelphians have greater cultural understanding by leading numerous trips to the Soviet Union, China, and Nepal.

From 1977 -1987, she was the executive director of the International Visitors Council (IVC), now known as Citizen Diplomacy International, a nonprofit organization devoted to cultural exchange and understanding. Under her leadership, she grew IVC to serve more than 4,000 international visitors a year who were seeking business, cultural and government connections in the Philadelphia region.

During her tenure, she also launched a successful telephone hotline language bank, staffed by volunteers, which provided translation services in more than 30 languages to the Philadelphia community.

Torrey retired in 1988, but she remained passionate about human rights, foreign affairs, education, and the environment. She focused her time on volunteer activities as a board member and activist.

Sarah West, a former Friends of the Wissahickon board member and resident of Cathedral Village, said it was under Torrey’s leadership, FOW restored Valley Green Inn. “She always encouraged others to make a difference,” she said. “She never really retired; she kept contributing to whatever community she was in. Even in her 90s, she was still engaging with life.”

Torrey was a founding member of the Philadelphia Committee on Foreign Relations and a member of Global Philadelphia. She was a member of the board of the Chamonix Youth Hostel and a long-time supporter of the Chestnut Hill Library.

In 2015, she received the U.N. Human Rights Hero Award from the U.S. Mission to the U.N. for 50 years of service to global peace and equality. During the ceremonies, Torrey recalled how on “December 10, 1948, at 3 a.m., 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, after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was unanimously passed. Mrs. Roosevelt used to always say, ‘that you find yourself by serving others.’”

She is survived by her son L. Russell Torrey, her daughter Elizabeth P. Torrey and six grandsons. She was preceded in death by her sister, Grace R. Wheeler, her brother Norman F.S. Russell, Jr., her daughter Ella King Torrey, her husband Carl “Buzz” Torrey and her oldest son Carl G. Torrey, Jr.

A memorial service will be held at a future date at Cathedral Village. Contributions may be made to the Ella Russell Torrey, 47′ Scholarship Fund, Bennington College, One College Drive, Bennington, VT 95201.




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