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Ellen Litney: World traveler, art patron, loving mom

World traveler, art patron, loving mom and ‘oma’

Longtime Claremonter and arts leader Ellen Knight Phillips Litney died on Saturday, August 16, 2014 at the age of 67.  

Mrs. Litney and her husband Dale were on their annual summer sojourn to Hamlin Lake, Michigan when she unexpectedly became ill. During a brief hospitalization beginning July 25, her doctors determined she had a viciously aggressive, incurable form of cancer, so she chose not to endure futile treatments and entered Faith Hospice at Trillium Woods in Grand Rapids. In her final days, she was comforted by her husband, children, grandchildren, sister and nephew. 

Her passing leaves a big hole in the Claremont social and cultural fabric. At the time of her death, Mrs. Litney was president of The Campus Women of the Claremont Colleges and vice president of The Rembrandt Club of Pomona College. She also served on committees for The University Club of Claremont, and had recently been elected to the board of the Petterson Museum of Intercultural Art at Pilgrim Place. She also had memberships at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Scripps Fine Arts and The Claremont Museum of Art.

These official roles, however, were only a part of Mrs. Litney’s extensive service to the community. She also served as the go-to friend and surrogate relative for many.

“When we were growing up,” said Mrs. Litney’s daughter, Diana Hutzell, “our mom was ‘Mom’ for all of our friends as well. Whenever they were having problems, or just wanted to relax, they would come over. One friend even moved into our house for the summer and brought his tarantula with him.  She made every place we lived a home. None of us can believe she is gone.”

“Oma [German for grandma] was such a large part of my life,” said Mrs. Litney’s granddaughter Alex Hutzell.  “She wasn’t the grandma I saw a few times a year, I saw her almost every day. She always supported me and went to whatever sporting events I had. Anytime I had a performance, I knew she would be right there cheering me on. She was the best grandma anyone could ever ask for. She was caring, passionate, dedicated, strong, and so much more. She will be missed greatly by her family, along with everyone in Claremont.”

Mrs. Litney was born on November 20, 1946 in Chicago, Illinois, the first child of Professor Edwin A. and Margaret K. Phillips. She grew up in Claremont attending Mary B. Eyre pre-school, Sycamore Elementary, Foothill Country Day and El Roble Intermediate. After graduating from Claremont High School in 1964, she attended Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois for three years.

While her father was on sabbatical from Pomona College during 1954-1955, Mrs. Litney traveled with her parents and sister Nancy to England, France and Switzerland where she attended schools in Zuoz and Geneva. During a second sabbatical from 1961-1962, the family lived in Oxford, England, with Ellen spending what would be her sophomore year at the Oxford School for Girls. To her delight, a three-week winter holiday was spent at a chalet in Wengen, Switzerland with plenty of skiing. During spring break, the family explored Italy and then Greece, where they encountered a revolution-in-progress and a tear-gas attack in Athens.

Ellen met her lifelong partner Dale in the spring of 1966 while attending Knox College. When asked, she would recall that the mere act of vaulting over a fire hydrant during a hand-in-hand stroll from the gym back to her dorm cemented their relationship for a lifetime. That lifetime would entail continual family relocations in the states and abroad, as her husband progressed through the US Army ranks from private to colonel.

They were married on February 3, 1967 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. It was a three-day pass occasion for the couple, who were joined by Ellen’s parents flying in from Claremont and two of Dale’s fraternity brothers acting as witnesses. Dale’s parents who lived near Chicago were unable to attend due to the “snowstorm of the century” that paralyzed the upper Midwest.

After a two-day honeymoon in Nashville, Mrs. Litney returned to Knox and Dale continued his military training. Wherever they went became home, even for short stays, thanks to Ellen’s resilience, versatility and friendliness. This was in spite of the fact that Dale had to be absent much of the time. In fact, she only saw him a few hours each week with no overnight stays for the first 18 weeks of his officer training in Georgia. And so it went.

In 1968, the Litneys moved from a furnished two-bedroom apartment near the famous Indianapolis 500 Speedway to a tiny, second-floor apartment in Red Bank, New Jersey with kitchen table, portable crib for their new baby Diana and mattress on the floor as the only furnishings. To stay cool, Ellen would head out with Diana in her folks’ ’68 Mustang, turn on the AC and try to enjoy the summertime “Jersey shore.’”

From there it was Honolulu with baby Diana while her husband served at Long Binh, 30 miles northeast of Saigon. Dale was able to take two brief “Rest and Recuperation” leaves to visit them in the spring and summer of 1969.

In October ’69, the Litneys moved into a lovely furnished house in Auburn, 30 miles north of Fort Lewis, Washington. Not surprisingly, Ellen proved adept at welcoming and entertaining Dale’s staff officers as well as hosting more formal occasions with his boss and wife.

In September 1970, the Litneys returned to Claremont so Dale could pursue a doctorate at the Claremont Graduate School. After a brief stay at Ellen’s parents’ home on the corner of 12th and College and the birth of their son E Dale, they became managers of the grad school apartments on 12th and Dartmouth. There, the 3-year-old Diana could easily walk the few yards to Mary B. Eyre pre-school, following in her mother’s footsteps.

In the summer of 1972, Ellen and the kids drove ahead of Dale to settle into their next new home in St. Charles, Missouri. Mr. Litney was tasked with driving a 24-foot-long Ryder truck from Claremont. Seven days later (at 50 miles per hour), Dale arrived and was greeted with a chorus of “where’s Mama Kitty?” The family Siamese who had been traveling with Dale for the 2,000-mile trip was missing. Ellen calmed the kids and suggested that Dad reverse course and find the cat. He did, but only with the help of his oldest sister Nancy, who flew him back to Joplin, Missouri in a single-engine Cessna, a “holey” box at the ready. After taking a taxi to town and ordering the driver to wait, Dale found Mama purring contentedly in the laundry room of the motel where somehow she had escaped from his rapt attention.

A year later, Ellen set up home in Galesburg (a real house this time), and became adept at snow shoveling in addition to lawn mowing while Dale was off recruiting new Knox students. In September 1975, they returned to Claremont so Mr. Litney could finish his doctorate. “Home” was now the Spring Hill Apartments on south Indian Hill. Mrs. Litney enrolled Diana in Sycamore and young Dale in Mary B. Eyre, both legacy endeavors. Soon, Ellen was working for her dad as a technician at the Phytotron, one of the few specialized research greenhouses that existed at that time, at Pomona College. 

In 1977, home became the corner of 11th and Cambridge, when the Litneys house-sat for Anne and Charlie Campbell during their sabbatical year. In the fall of 1978, the family moved overseas to La Verne College’s education center at Subic Bay Naval Station, Republic of the Philippines. Ellen now had a live-in assistant, Jacins, the “Queen” of the local cadre of Filipina housekeepers. During the next three years, Ellen honed her management skills planning and executing the many off-base excursions on Luzon Island taken by the Navy Officers Wives Club.  These trips often included a military police escort, since the admiral’s wife was a participant. The move to the Philippines allowed Ellen to complete an associate’s degree from La Verne College in 1981.

Upon their return to the States in ’81, home became a multi-level lakeside apartment in St. Louis, and Mrs. Litney became a travel agent. At the time, there were many travel perks for agents and she took grand advantage of them. When Dale was reassigned to the Pentagon in 1984, Ellen continued in the travel industry, commuting from their rented house in Burke, Virginia by bus and metro to an office in Maryland. Both kids were in high school and once again making new friends. As always, their house became a popular gathering spot.

In 1987, Ellen had a dream come true.  Her husband “ruined” his military career by taking a job at the Presidio of San Francisco and leaving the Pentagon! Their quarters on “Colonel’s Row” overlooked the Bay and were within a short walk to the Main Gate and wondrous city beyond. Diana also came west and continued her college studies at San Francisco City College.  Young Dale enrolled at Knox.

This was the family’s first experience living on an army post and Ellen took full advantage. She became an integral member of the Officers Wives Club, planning programs and organizing trips, all of which she wanted to do and see.  She and Diana also worked diligently at the Presidio’s Thrift Shop where the young enlisted families could find affordable household items and clothing.

In 1993, Mrs. Litney found a lovely two-story condo for their next home near Chicago, where she visited the many vibrant cultural institutions. In 1995, Dr. Litney left active duty and they returned to Claremont to establish a home of their own.

From 1996 to 2006, Ellen’s travel adventures took a mighty leap forward. She would meet Dale for two to three weeks, every five to six months, while he served tours for the US State or Defense departments in Bosnia y Herzegovina, Nigeria and Afghanistan. During this time they traveled in Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, South Africa, Spain (twice), Turkey and Italy. Inserted into those years were trips to Colorado, Germany and Chicago for the births of her grandchildren.

“My mom was always available at the drop of the hat when my brother and I needed her,” said Mrs. Hutzell. “When Alex was born early, she took the next plane to Colorado to help out. Then when Ryan was born, she stayed with us for a month in Germany, to make sure Alex had Oma to take her places and give her extra attention. And she was there for the birth of my brother’s children as well. Even my kids’ friends call her Oma.”

Mrs. Litney was also there for her sister and their close friends. For the past 25 years, Ellen and her sister Nancy held a “Ladies Week” every May in Palm Springs. The women would eat, read, relax by the pool and walk to the local museums and galleries for their carefree vacation. With Ellen, you always had a good time.

In 2007, Mrs. Litney joined her husband for his work in Prague, where they lived at the quaint, 12-room, family-run Hormeda Hotel in Prague. She immediately tackled the length and breadth of the city. From there, they also visited Latvia, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Portugal. Ellen was the consummate “tour guide” for the numerous relatives and friends who visited Prague during that time.

Returning to Claremont in May 2008 after an 11-week tour of New Zealand’s North and South Islands, Ellen took on her greatest challenge. For years she had alternated between being president and vice president of The Rembrandt Club of Pomona College. Dr. Litney recalls that early on, Ellen was very concerned about the continued existence of the club; there were only a handful of active members.  “We don’t have enough money put away to provide the full grant to a deserving junior art student for their research,” she told him.

With that as motivation, Mrs. Litney and a small but significant cadre of arts lovers turned the “aircraft carrier” around—no mean feat. According to the club’s current president, Areta Herr, “Thanks to Ellen’s vision, Rembrandt is now a fun service club with more than 150 members who enjoy the arts and provide grants for summer research projects for Pomona College art students.”

“Ellen was the ideal leader,” said the club’s membership co-chair Claudia Pearce. “She was a lot of fun and extremely competent herself, as well as good at finding and grooming competent people do a lot of the legwork for making the club a continuing success. She made everyone feel welcome and valued. She was the perfect person to lead an arts organization, since she lived so artfully herself—with spirit, class, fun, verve, humor, irreverence and, above all, a stylish collection of hats. We all miss her terribly.”

In a recent tribute, a career army friend praised Ellen’s lifelong zest for travel and adventure, adding, “She was always vocal and spunky, but almost always right and that endeared her to so many.  I know her vision and voice will always be with us.”

Ellen surrounded herself with art, reading, traveling, the love of a good hat and, above all, friends and family. She is loved and remembered by her husband Dale; her daughter Diana and son-in-law Steve Hutzell of Claremont; and her son E Dale Litney of Schaumburg, Illinois. She leaves behind four grandchildren who all made her proud, Alexandra and Ryan Hutzell, and Payton and Sydney Litney.  She is also survived by her sister Nancy Phillips and nephew Phillip Naslund, both of Claremont.

Cremation has taken place and a party in Ellen Litney’s honor is scheduled for Saturday, November 15 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Seaver House, Pomona College, 305 N. College Ave. in Claremont. Friends are invited to attend and share remembrances of this remarkable woman. Memorial contributions in memory of Ellen may be directed to The Rembrandt Club of Pomona College, 333 N. College Way, Claremont, CA 91711.

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