After a long career as a corporate executive, nonprofit leader, and civic advocate, Ellen Randolph Coolidge Burbank died at her home in Philadelphia on May 15, 2023. The cause was congestive heart failure. She was 77.
The daughter of Francis Lowell Coolidge and Helen Reed Curtis, Ellen was born in Waltham on Aug. 4, 1945. She was said to be a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. She spent her early childhood in Concord and summered at her family’s home in Mattapoisett.
After her father joined the CIA, the family lived in Washington, D.C., Bern, Switzerland, and Carthage, Tunisia. Ellen attended a dizzying number of schools and was exposed to many languages and cultures. She acquired an abiding passion for travel as well as a strong work ethic, which enabled her to overcome dyslexia long before having a formal diagnosis.
A graduate of Rosemary Hall in Connecticut and of Finch College in New York City, Ellen worked briefly in New York before moving to Boston. She held a variety of positions at M.I.T. before and after 1970, when she married Stephen Burbank, whom she met when he was a Harvard College roommate of her twin brother, Frank.
They spent their first year of marriage — an extended honeymoon — in Europe and North Africa on a travel fellowship. Upon their return, they served as house parents in a Harvard freshman dormitory while Stephen finished law school.
Following a year at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, the couple moved to Philadelphia in 1975, where Stephan began a 47-year career at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ellen played various roles in nonprofits, including director of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, and in corporate philanthropy before joining the Pew Charitable Trusts as a program officer in education. In 1981, Ellen gave birth, very prematurely, to Peter, and she met the demands of her career and the care of her disabled son with determination and grace.
Ellen retired from Pew in the early 2000s to spend more time ensuring Peter’s happiness and enjoying her beloved second home in Wellfleet, which she and Stephen bought in 1996 after spending many summers in a rented house. “She was a devoted mother,” Stephen said, “who made tense times less tense with her sense of humor.”
Ellen came out of retirement to direct the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, where she helped navigate both the 2007 and 2010 centennial celebrations and the U.S. Postal Service unveiling of the Edward Hopper stamp on the grounds of the monument in 2011.
Although she retired after the Hopper event, she served as a trustee of New England Village, an independent living community where Peter has been since 2006, and of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
She also consulted for Jobs for the Future in Boston and for the Gates Foundation and served on the Program Advisory Committee of the Rhode Island Foundation.
Ellen never lost her love of travel, and she particularly enjoyed Paris and London. Her husband said she walked the length of Cape Cod — from Sagamore Bridge to Provincetown — with a group of friends.
She made friends wherever she went and was a trusted confidante. According to an unnamed friend quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Ellen was an incredible kickass career woman and mom before that was even a thing.”
She also never lost her determination and grace, which enabled her successfully to manage autoimmune disease for more than 30 years and, until recently, heart disease as well. She approached a 2019 diagnosis of dementia with characteristic grit, prompting her doctor to extol her “spectacular resiliency.” Practically to the end, she greeted Peter’s daily telephone calls with a cheerful “What’s up, Tootsie Roll?”
The respect and love of friends was evident in their extraordinary efforts on her behalf as the weight of myriad health challenges finally wore down even her formidable defenses.
In addition to her husband of 53 years and her son, she leaves her sister, Mary, three nieces, three nephews, six great-nephews and -nieces, and a host of loving friends in Philadelphia and on Cape Cod.
She was predeceased by her parents, her twin brother, Frank, and her sister, Nina.
Donations in Ellen’s name may be made to the New England Village, 664 School St., Pembroke 02359.
A memorial service is planned for late July, with details yet to be announced.