Mary Ellen Dee was born July 16, 1927, in Freeport, California, a one-store town a few miles south of Sacramento. As the daughter of Helen Wells Dee and James Lawrence Dee, she began life on a family farm near the Sacramento River. She had one sister, Margaret. She attended a two-room school house with about a dozen other students, three of whom were named Mary. Thus, to avoid confusion, she was forevermore known as Ellen except on legal papers. Ellen grew up on the Dee farm driving tractor, baling and bucking hay, thinning sugar beets, and riding cowponies to herd the cattle. The family’s farmhouse didn’t have indoor plumbing until she was ten years old. Ellen’s parents were determined that she should have a better education than they had, so her mother drove her and Margaret into Sacramento every day to attend McClatchy High School.
Ellen continued her education at the University of California at Berkeley in 1944, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in the College of Business Administration— in spite of the fact that several professors informed her that “women should not be majoring in business administration.” At Berkeley, Ellen pledged the Alpha Gamma Delta Sorority, which became very important to her. She made some lifelong friends at the sorority, which also helped her to make the adjustment from rural to city life.
Following graduation, Ellen accepted a position as a buyer trainee at a prominent San Francisco department store, but soon decided that career was not for her. She enrolled in night school to learn typing, shorthand, and office management skills, then accepted a position as a legal secretary with a law firm in Oakland, California. After working for several years as a skilled legal secretary, she accepted a position with Shell Research and Development, a division of Shell Oil Co., in Emeryville, California. She worked in the Instrumentation Department until after relocating to Tucson after her marriage.
Ellen married Jim Witt in 1951, while Jim was in graduate school at Berkeley. When Jim finished at Berkeley and accepted a position at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ellen worked at Hughes Aircraft. She worked there until the summer of 1957, shortly before her first child Randy was born. A second son Kenny was born in 1959 and daughter Shelly came along in 1963. In 1966, the family moved to Corvallis, where Jim went to work for Oregon State University. Ellen was asked to assist in office work in the Entomology Department and was later transferred to the Department of Botany. She would work only half-time in order to ensure that she would be home for her children when they were not at school. She continued in this employment until she retired in 1989.
Ellen died on March 28, 2003. She is remembered as a very special person who was always trying some new endeavor, including backpacking and horse packing over the 12,000-foot passes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When Jim wanted to buy a sailboat, she learned to sail with a book on sailing in one hand and a tiller in the other. “She was a terrific First Mate,” said friends Will and Carol Crites, who had many enjoyable and memorable times sailing with Ellen and Jim in the San Juans and the Carribbean. When Ellen sustained a severely fractured leg and required air lifting to Miami for surgery, Ellen was more concerned for her friends than for her own welfare. She insisted that Will and Carol continue their sailing adventure and apologized for any inconvenience she may have caused. “That was typically ‘Ellen,’ said Will and Carol. “She was always thoughtful of other people.”
Ellen was very active in the Assistance League of Corvallis and especially fond of working in the Assistance League’s stained glass group, making leaded stained glass objects to raise funds for their work with children. The Ellen Dee Witt Memorial Fund benefits the Assistance League’s stained glass program.