Obituary: Eleanor Brown Dornenburg / Volunteer and 'professional woman to the core'

Dec. 4, 1915 - Nov. 22, 2013

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Even as a toddler, Eleanor Brown Dornenburg knew the value of being useful to others, and of working hard to contribute to the common good.

At 2 years old, she was among the youngest Red Cross volunteers during World War I. The toddler's job was to walk under the sewing machines of her mother and other women making bandages for the war effort, and pick up the pins that had fallen from their sewing.

Serious about her work even then, Mrs. Dornenburg went on to earn an advanced education for a woman of her era, and to establish an equally rare and long-lasting professional career while also raising three children.

"She was a leader," said her daughter, Noreen Dornenburg of Mt. Lebanon.

"She got things done, which is like her mother in that regard, too, and she was a professional woman to the core."

Mrs. Dornenburg, also of Mt. Lebanon, died Friday. She was 97.

Born in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4, 1915, Mrs. Dornenburg was the daughter of Walter and Susan Brown.

For most of her childhood, Mrs. Dornenburg lived with her parents at the former Keown Hotel in Ross, at the corner of Route 19 and Three-Degree Road. The family moved there when she was about 2 years old and her brother, Joseph, was about 12 so her mother could help care for her elderly aunts, who owned the hotel, her daughter said.

Her grandmother, Susan Brown, was strong-willed, independent -- a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she resigned after the group denied opera singer Marian Anderson the right to sing to an integrated audience at its Constitution Hall in 1939 -- and active in North Side women's organizations, Ms. Dornenburg said.

Her mother was cut from the same fabric, showing her resolve early in life.

As a young girl in first or second grade, Mrs. Dornenburg was sent to a boarding school run by nuns in Sharpsburg, which an older cousin also attended, her daughter said.

Not long after arriving, she managed to get across to the other side of the school in the middle of the night and find her cousin.

"She slammed her in the face and said, 'You take me home, I don't like it here,' and she didn't stay," Ms. Dornenburg said.

Instead, Mrs. Dornenburg attended primary school in a two-room schoolhouse in Perrysville and then graduated from Perry High School and the University of Pittsburgh two years early, earning a bachelor's degree in library science in 1935. Two years later, she earned a master's degree in sociology -- later converted to a master's in social work -- from Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

While there, she also worked for then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, following up with people who had written to the White House asking for help during the Great Depression.

After an 8-year courtship that began during her first year at Pitt, she married her beau, William Dornenburg, and the couple soon moved to Thomasville, Ga., where her husband worked as the commander of a U.S. Air Force flight training base throughout World War II.

The Dornenburgs returned to Pittsburgh after the war, and Mrs. Dornenburg became supervisor of social workers for Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh. In the late 1940s, she began a project called a homemaker service, in which older women would take care of the children and homes of men who had lost their wives.

In 1953, Mrs. Dornenburg resigned that position to manage her husband's law practice, where she held real estate and insurance licenses and helped with tasks large and small for the next 37 years.

"She was the kind who would quietly see what needed to be done, and then she went and did it," said another daughter, Mary Dornenburg, also of Mt. Lebanon.

Their mother always made an effort to get to know everyone she worked with, Noreen Dornenburg said.

"When we started working, she told us to get to know the secretaries and janitors because they'll get you through any difficulties, and it's absolutely true," Ms. Dornenburg said.

By 1962, the family had moved to Rosslyn Farms and Mrs. Dornenburg had joined the Carnegie Club, to which she remained fiercely loyal for the rest of her life. At one point, the organization had begun falling apart as aging members began falling away and younger members failed to step forward, Ms. Dornenburg said.

"She said that they had to put up or shut up, basically, that the younger ones had to start taking over or there wouldn't be a club," she said.

"Now, there's a second generation."

After her husband died in 1989, Mrs. Dornenburg and her children closed his practice and sold the family home in Rosslyn Farms. Mrs. Dornenburg moved to a house on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon, and later shared a house in Mt. Lebanon with her daughters.

After her retirement, Mrs. Dornenburg continued the travels she began decades earlier with her husband and children, which included several trips on the cargo ship Americana along both coasts of South America. And she never lost her fierce pleasure in playing -- and often winning at -- poker, which she had learned as a child from her brother and enjoyed playing with her son, William, and his Army buddies.

"Some of them would object strenuously to playing with this 80-year-old woman, until they lost," Ms. Dornenburg said.

Mrs. Dornenburg is survived by her three children. A Mass will be celebrated at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church (St. Luke's) in Carnegie Tuesday at 11 a.m., and friends and family members are asked to meet at the church. Donations may be made to the Red Cross for Philippines Typhoon Relief or to Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh.

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or


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