From Shoeboxes to the Museum's Membership Program

The Determination of Ann O’Donnell: Enduring Volunteer and Co-Founder of the Museum’s Membership Program

By: Jordan Cooper

Spring/Summer Issue

Ann O’Donnell’s more-than-50-year tenure as a volunteer with the Museum began with cutting flowers for dioramas. Since then, she has served in dozens of roles, from clerical support in the membership and development office, to exhibit support, to organizing lectures and field trips for members and volunteers. Today, at 92 years old, she is still involved with the Volunteer Engagement Committee. 

But perhaps her most significant contribution has been co-founding the membership program. Ann O’Donnell looks back fondly at a time when the Museum’s corpus of membership cards fit into two shoeboxes. 

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Museum volunteer Ann O'Donnell and partner enjoying an evening at the Anschutz Family Sky Terrace. (Photo/Rick Wicker)

“I worked very hard asking everybody I’d ever met in my life to join,” she recalls from her time working at what was then known as the Denver Museum of Natural History in the early 1970s.  

And when those shoeboxes were full, she went searching for filing cabinets.   

“We didn’t have any money, so I had to go to the board of trustees. [I was] shaking [in front of] all these old men in their three-piece suits smoking cigars, and I explained what I needed and they granted it. So that was my first job and it was fun,” said Ann O’Donnell.   

Today, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has nearly 50,000 members, which would fill about 200 of Ann’s shoeboxes.  

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A panoramic view of the Denver Museum of Natural History in the fall of 1974. (Credit/Robert R. Wright)

Following her success in memberships, Ann O’Donnell became involved in the Museum’s lecture series as a chaperone for legendary names in the fields of natural sciences including Louis and Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Donald Johanson and numerous others. One of her favorite stories involves being coaxed into playing tennis with famed underwater cinematographer Stan Waterman.   

Ann O’Donnell’s son John O’Donnell remembers the excitement he felt living in the O’Donnell household. 

“When we were kids, we had all sorts of fun stories of all the different speakers that she was able to help get. Sometimes she would bring them by the house, and sometimes she would bring them by my school,” said John O’Donnell.  

But Ann O’Donnell’s extraordinary experiences were not limited to the lecture series; in her time at the Museum, she planned, organized and led over 100 excursions across the region. Among her favorites were visiting the Budweiser Clydesdales, going Elk Bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park and touring the Olympic Training Center.   

“I’m always looking around, everywhere I go. I see things in the newspaper and start planning how we can turn it into a field trip,” Ann O’Donnell said in a 2013 interview.   

Ann O’Donnell’s husband, Canton, who is equal parts gregarious and pensive, believes her most special trait is her desire to connect authentically with anyone she meets.   

“It’s just her nature. She’s just friends with everybody,” he said.

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Winter scenery in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 1994. (Photo/Daniel Steelman)

To inspire future generations to continue in Ann O’Donnell’s spirit of exploration and discovery, John O’Donnell came to the Museum with the concept of an endowment that would build not just on his mother’s legacy at the Museum but also on her early career as a teacher at Dora Moore Elementary School in Denver – thus the Ann O’Donnell Endowment for Outreach and Education was born.   

The idea came to life on a whiteboard in the basement of the Museum and is intended to fulfill a need at the intersection of outreach and education for rural and underserved communities in perpetuity. Specifically, it will support hands-on science education experiences for K–12 students, both in their own schools and communities and on field trips to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.  

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Ann O'Donnell inside the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. (Photo/Rick Wicker)

“We would like to share some of the wonderful resources of the Museum with people in Montana, Mexico, and Mongolia,” said John O’Donnell.  

As the years have gone on, the Museum has served as a bright spot for Ann O’Donnell that always manages to lift her spirits and add spring to her step.    

“When we get to the Museum, zoom! She goes barreling through at 40 miles an hour,” said Canton O’Donnell.  

Thanks to Ann O’Donnell, the joy and wonder of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science will transcend time and space, inspiring a new generation of explorers wherever they may be.   

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