Volume 9, No. 5 –May 2022
In this issue
• Dedication of the May 2022 newsletter

• Celebration of the life of Helen Ramirez-Odell

• Excerpt of an interview with Helen

• Tribute to Paul Odell
Working Women’s History Project 
dedicates the WWHP May 2022 Newsletter 
 Helen Marie Ramirez-Odell 
July 22, 1942 to March 22, 2022 
An irrepressible and unstoppable woman of conviction 
and fighter for what was right and what was fair 

Recently, Working Women’s History Project lost one of our beloved board members — Helen Ramirez-Odell.

Helen, in 1995, was one of our Founding Members of Women and Labor History Project (WLHP), later renamed Working Women’s History Project. 

Helen’s energy seemed unflagging and she was active in numerous organizations that she believed in. She was Vice President of Programming and remained an active board member right up until the very end. But Helen was more than that. She was a woman, wife, mother, grandmother, step-grandmother, step-great-grandmother, activist and friend. 
Before anything else, Helen was Helen, one of a kind: irrepressible and irreplaceable. 
Photo by Jackie Kirley
Photo by Paul Odell
Celebration of Life: Helen Ramirez-Odell

by Amy Laiken
On May 14th, family, friends, and union and social justice colleagues of the late Helen Ramirez-Odell gathered at Chief O’Neill’s Pub to celebrate her life and share stories of her activism in social justice movements. Helen was Working Women’s History Project’s Vice President for Programming.

After lunch, generously provided by Helen Ramirez-Odell’s and Paul Odell’s families, Debby Pope, CTU Class Size Coordinator and member of the executive board, opened the program and mentioned Helen’s involvement in many organizations and causes. She later spoke about the way Helen recognized that race, gender and class are intersectional in the issues affecting people. Others speakers included:

  • State Senator Ram Villivalem, who talked about how he first met Helen, and of a resolution, adopted on April 9th, that he entered into the record of the 102nd State Senate (Senate Resolution 982), in her honor. 

  • Jackie Kirley, former president and current board member of Working Women’s History Project, who credited Helen with encouraging her to run for president. She also cited the many ways Helen contributed to WWHP, including writing articles for our newsletters, and donating all the proceeds from the sales of one of her books, Working Without Uniforms: School Nursing In Chicago 1951-2001 to Working Women’s History Project.  

  • Katie Jordan, President of the Chicago Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and board member of WWHP, who described Helen as a “phenomenal woman,” whom she had known for 55 years and had gotten to know better through Helen’s involvement in CLUW.
  • Moira Melendez, Helen’s daughter, and Cyndi Christel, Helen’s stepdaughter, who emphasized Helen’s strong commitments to her family. Moira said that there were many beautiful stories about her mother’s life, and both women said that they viewed each other as sisters. Cyndi spoke about her father (and Helen’s husband), Paul Odell, who passed away in April, and described Helen’s and Paul’s marriage as one of equals.

  • Sue Straus, longtime activist in Chicago NOW and Vice President in Charge of Development for Working Women’s History Project, who spoke of Helen’s involvement in Northwest Suburban NOW and her commitment to the Equal Rights amendment.

  • Stacy Davis Gates, Chicago Teacher’s Union Vice President, who praised Helen as a strong unionist who recognized that women’s rights included reproductive justice as well as fair wages.

  • Mary Ann Johnson, President of Chicago Women’s History Center, who interviewed Helen as part of an oral history project. She read an excerpt from the transcript of the interview, which will follow this article. 

  • Professor Rosemary Feurer, of the Mother Jones Heritage Project and Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University, who said that Helen beautifully connected the past with the present and that she was pivotal in raising money to erect a statue in honor of Mother Jones. 
Leah Shoshana played the guitar and she and Kimberly Goldbaum sang songs in solidarity with the women’s and labor movements, while the audience enthusiastically sang along to “Union Maid,” a particular favorite of Helen’s. WWHP treasurer Ken Morris opened the event by playing guitar. Later, Ken and Joan Morris performed the song “Sigh No More” with lyrics by William Shakespeare. 

It was an uplifting afternoon, filled with tributes to a woman whose passion for social justice was a calling, and with testimony about the many lives she touched. Those who attended left with the resolve to continue fighting for the causes that Helen championed for so long.
This is event was videotaped for CAN TV by Frank Avila, who had worked with Helen on the Mother Jones Chicago Statue Campaign. The video will be aired at a later date. 
Photos by Mary Bonnett
An Oral History Interview with 
Helen Ramirez-Odell 

Conducted by Mary Ann Johnson on June 27, 2014 
for the Chicago Women’s History Center 
Helen Ramirez-Odell was born Helen Hershinow in Chicago and grew up in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the city. She attended Loyola University Chicago and received her B.S.N. and R.N. degrees in nursing in 1964. She then worked in the Chicago Public Schools as a school nurse for over forty years until her retirement in 2011. When she discovered, in the late 60s, that she could not make a needed purchase from Goldblatt’s because they did not give women credit she was outraged and joined Chicago NOW. Here she became an activist for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a cause she has championed to this day. In the early 70s, she joined the Chicago Teachers Union and became a member of its Women’s Rights Committee which she chaired from 1984 to 2009.

During her tenure the Committee worked to end sexual harassment, supported women’s advancement at the Washburne Trade School, sought to improve conditions and employment for women in sports, promoted women’s labor history, supported women political candidates, and fought for women’s health, birth control and reproductive choice, among many other issues. In 1995 she was a founder of the Women in Labor History Project, later called the Working Women’s History Project. During this time, she was also active in the Chicago Coalition of Labor Union Women and Cassandra, A Radical Feminist Nurses Network. She wrote and published Working Without Uniforms, the story of school nurses in Chicago from 1951 to 2001 and created a manuscript RN Revolution Needed, about the need for a feminist transformation of the nursing profession. 
Link to the interview online:

Photographer Unknown
Photo by Amy Laiken
Paul Odell 1930-2022  

One of Working Women’s History Project’s longtime friends and members, who was Helen Ramirez-Odell’s husband, passed away on Monday, April 25, 2022, only about a month after Helen's passing on March 22, 2022. 

He had been married for over 30 years to his first wife and married to Helen for another 30 years. Like Helen, his family meant everything to him. He and Helen made sure everyone in both of their families felt valued and included. His daughter Cyndi (Odell) Christel and his step-daughter, Moira. He was a loving grandfather to Carson (Sarah) Christel, Steve Odell, Ryan (Emily) Edwards, David Edwards and Michael Melendez, beloved great grandfather to Makailyn, Isabelle, Ryan Junior, and DeAndré.  

To say Paul lived life to the fullest is an understatement. He was a hard worker and a “Jack of all trades.” As a young boy, Paul bought and ran a shoe-shine business, tap danced on the radio, and performed in a YMCA traveling trapeze acrobat show (specializing on Rings). Paul worked at a rubber plant, steel mill and labored as a construction worker, pizza delivery person, loader of box cars, sign cleaner/installer and became a member of the Teamsters, Electrical Workers and Rubber Workers Unions. He served in the military: US Army-Sergeant First Class-1st Cavalry Div. 7th Cavalry Regt. 

Teaching in CPS 
He had graduated from DePaul University with a Masters in Education and became a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. His students remember him as a caring, hands-on teacher who taught with a well-timed sense of humor while teaching respect, and discipline. He was well known for having reptiles and small mammals in the classroom. As a teacher in the 60's there were 60 children in his class, no prep periods, no vacation, no paid health care or accumulation of sick days, no grievance or due process, and a salary that required working part-time jobs to make ends meet. There were also discriminatory practices. He joined the Chicago Teachers Union in 1960. 

The Chicago Teachers Union and Meeting Helen 
Paul became a full time Chicago Teachers Union Field Representative in 1979. He was instrumental in effecting change to make improvements not just for teachers, but also for the educational and environmental conditions so that they could be of significant benefit for students' learning. Fittingly, Paul had met Helen on the picket line. They married and had been inseparable for over 30 years. 

He was an active member of Working Women’s History Project, and acted  in many of our theater productions, which he loved, and excelled at playing villainous, sinister characters. Ken Morris, our treasurer, said that he and Paul got to play “the evil discriminators.” Paul also was the photographer for many of our events and donated many beautiful items to be auctioned. Paul loved music from barbershop quartets to Dean Martin to Elvis. 

Paul loved all animals and was a docent at Lincoln Park Zoo. He became a special friend and supporter of primates. At home, he loved his dogs and his outdoor pond, which he installed himself, complete with large goldfish and lily pads, but mostly just loved spending time with his family. 

Paul’s inner strength and faith got him through many life-threatening illnesses and challenging times with great humor and a twinkle in his eye. WWHP will miss him dearly. 

+Largely based on the obituary on the Dignity Memorial website with additions by Joan Morris, WWHP 
Photographer Unknown
Photo by Amy Laiken
WWHP is now on Twitter! To follow us click here: 
Working Women's History Project

Please contact us through Amy Laiken