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In Memoriam: Sheri O'Dell
NOW Loses Dynamic Leader, Organizer

September 26, 2005

Sheri O'Dell

The National Organization for Women lost a tireless advocate of women's rights on Sunday when Sheri O'Dell, a former NOW Action Vice President and West Virginia NOW state president, died of lung cancer at her home in Maryland.

O'Dell was born in West Virginia in 1943 and worked as a newspaper reporter before becoming involved in politics as a speechwriter for Gov. Jay Rockefeller. She devoted every spare minute to women's rights issues and political causes.

In 1985, O'Dell was elected NOW National Vice President for Action. "When Sheri first ran, her chant was 'Raise-Hell, O-Dell,'" said NOW President Kim Gandy. "Two years later, Sheri and I were both elected on Molly Yard's ticket, along with Patricia Ireland, and I got to see up-close her passion and her skill as an organizer. Sheri could really whip up a crowd."

During her term as Action V.P., O'Dell successfully fought the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork and led more than 700,000 women's rights supporters through the streets of Washington, D.C., in the 1989 March for Women's Lives. In 1990, O'Dell organized the Freedom Caravan for Women's Lives, which traveled the country to campaign against anti-abortion laws and initiatives.

O'Dell also found time to support two West Virginia friends, Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey, Catholic nuns whose New York Times ad in support of presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro garnered them heavy criticism from the Vatican and Roman Catholic leadership.

"Sheri was always very supportive of us during that political battle," Hussey recalled. "I think people would first describe her as fiery, passionate, insightful. But the kindness dimension-she was that as well." Later, Hussey and Ferraro launched a shelter and educational center in O'Dell's hometown of Charleston. Years ago O'Dell volunteered to write their end-year fundraising letter for Covenant House, and over the years her efforts helped raise more than $780,000, according to Hussey. "Her heart was always with the people of West Virginia."

After leaving her post at NOW, O'Dell went to work for Roger Craver of Craver, Mathews, Smith and Company (CMS), a public interest firm that represented many organizations whose missions were close to O'Dell's heart, including NOW and Planned Parenthood.

Craver said in a biography of O'Dell: "In a world marked by far too much complacency and protection of the status quo, Sheri is a passionate, intense voice of outrage and concern. To the uninitiated, her down-home West Virginia drawl may briefly mask the incisive and quick mind of a crusader. But only briefly-because when Sheri gets rolling, the rights and wrongs of the world come vividly alive through her Technicolor language." Fitting words for a memorial tribute, as well.

O'Dell is survived by her life partner, Jan Chapin. In lieu of flowers, friends are asked to send memorial gifts to a cause or charity close to your heart.

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