O'Donnell, Edith Jones (1926–2020)

By: Camila Ordorica Bracamontes

Type: Biography

Published: May 24, 2022

Updated: May 24, 2022

Edith Jones O’Donnell, community leader and philanthropist, was born on August 27, 1926, in Abilene, Texas, to Percy Jones and Ruth (Legett) Jones. She was raised in an affluent family, as her father, the nephew of railroad builder Morgan Jones, had vast real estate holdings and oil interests. She graduated from the Hockaday School, a private college preparatory school for girls, in 1944. (She later served as a member of the school’s board of trustees.) In 1948 she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. On November 22, 1952, Edith Jones married Peter O’Donnell, Jr. They had three children—Ann, Carol, and Ruth.

Together the O’Donnells devoted themselves to philanthropy especially in the fields of art, education, and medical science. In 1957 they established the O’Donnell Foundation.

Edith O’Donnell’s early philanthropic interest was art, and she engaged in its promotion by subsidizing art-related institutions. Her love for the visual arts came from an art history teacher that inspired her. In 1952 she signed up to volunteer at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art), and thus began a philanthropic relationship that would span almost seventy years. O’Donnell served as a docent for ten years and later chaired the museum’s education committee and became a trustee. She was named to the Texas Commission on the Arts in 1986 and served a six-year term. In 1987 she co-founded, with Mitch Jericho, a chapter of Young Audiences of Greater Dallas (which was renamed Big Thought in 2004) in the effort to bring the arts and cultural performances to schools. She furthered her work to promote education of the arts in 1994 when she established Advanced Placement Art and Music Theory, a program to educate students in middle schools and high schools as well as provide scholarships to art and music students.

With her husband Peter and through the O’Donnell Foundation, Edith O’Donnell was a strong supporter of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. One of the largest independent foundations in Dallas, the foundation has collaborated extensively with UT Southwestern and provided funding for the Center for Human Nutrition, established the Endowed Scholars Program in Medical Science for training medical scientists, aided in financing the Clinical Services Initiative, as well as creating the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute (so named in 2015), a center devoted to the study of the brain and treating related disorders. Through UT Southwestern, the foundation has also supported research by members of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Medicine, and the work of several Nobel Laureates.

In addition to these philanthropic endeavors, Edith O’Donnell supported the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Dallas Opera, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, and the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Fine Arts for which she served on the advisory board. She served on the original board of the Friends of the Governor’s Mansion of Texas. O’Donnell and her husband were very active in the Republican party. Peter O’Donnell was state Republican party chairman from 1962 to 1969, and the couple made significant contributions to both state and national candidates. They were close friends with Governor William Clements and his wife Rita, who served on the board of the O’Donnell Foundation for several years.

O’Donnell received many honors for her work. In 1989 she (as well as her husband) was honored with the TACA (The Arts Community Alliance) Silver Cup Award for her contributions to the arts in North Texas. She and her husband received the Linz Award recognizing their civic devotion to the city of Dallas in 1992. They were awarded honorary degrees of Doctor of Humane Letters by Southern Methodist University “for their pivotal roles in advancing the arts and education” in 2008. Through the years, her donations as well as through the O’Donnell Foundation to the Dallas Museum of Art allowed the museum to offer free general admission to the public and launched digitization projects for the facility’s vast collection. In 2013 the University of Texas at Dallas named a building after her, the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building. In 2014, with her donation of $17 million, she established the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at UT Dallas.

Edith Jones O’Donnell died in Dallas on November 14, 2020. She was survived by her husband, three daughters, and six grandchildren. Her husband Peter died the following year on October 10, 2021. Together and through their foundation they donated more than $300 million to U.T. Southwestern Medical Center.

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Austin American-Statesman, August 25, 2000; April 5, 2009. Heidi Harris Cannella, “UT Dallas Mourns Loss of Philanthropist, Arts Patron Edith O’Donnell,” November 17, 2020, University of Texas at Dallas (https://news.utdallas.edu/philanthropy/edith-odonnell-2020/), accessed May 12, 2022. Edith O’Donnell Individual Arts Patron, Texas Cultural Trust (https://txculturaltrust.org/bio/edith-odonnell/), accessed May 14, 2022. Bethany Erickson, “Dallas Philanthropist Edith O’Donnell Dies at 95,” People Newspapers, November 17, 2020 (https://www.peoplenewspapers.com/2020/11/17/dallas-philanthropist-edith-odonnell-dies-at-95/), accessed May 12, 2022. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 8, 2014. Jeanne Prejean, “A Passing: Edith O’Donnell,” November 17, 2020, My Sweet Charity (https://mysweetcharity.com/2020/11/a-passing-edith-odonnell/), accessed May 12, 2022. “UT Dallas Building to be Named for Philanthropist Edith O’Donnell,” May 10, 2013, University of Texas at Dallas (https://news.utdallas.edu/campus-community/ut-dallas-building-to-be-named-for-philanthropist-/), accessed May 12, 2022. Patrick Wascovich, “In Memoriam: Edith Jones O’Donnell, a cherished friend and transformative supporter of UT Southwestern,” CenterTimes Plus, November 17, 2020, UT Southwestern Medical Center (https://www.utsouthwestern.edu/ctplus/stories/2020/edith-odonnell-obit.html), accessed May 12, 2022.

  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civic Leaders
  • Education
  • Health and Medicine
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
  • Visual Arts
  • Collectors and Patrons
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Camila Ordorica Bracamontes, “O'Donnell, Edith Jones,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/odonnell-edith-jones.

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May 24, 2022
May 24, 2022

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