Ellen McConnell Blakeman (Senate, 1971)

Ellen McConnell Blakeman: Broke Important Gender Barrier, Succumbs to ALS
Credit: The Chicago Tribune (February 15, 2018)

Ellen McConnell Blakeman, 63, of Burr Ridge passed away peacefully on February 11, 2018, after a twelve-year battle with 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 U.S. Capitol Page Alumni Association, of which she was a life member.

After college at the University of Illinois, 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. At Burson-Marsteller, Ellen and her team won the Silver Anvil Award for excellence in public relations.

In 2006, shortly after Ellen’s father, 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 non-profit 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. A Long Swim is planning an open water swim in 2018 in the Chicago River, the 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, her mother, Bonnie McConnell and an uncountable number of friends and colleagues.