Mother’s Day with Ellen O’Connor and Elizabeth Cole




By Judy Carmack Bross





Elizabeth Cole with her mother, Ellen O’Connor


While celebrating Mother’s Day today with a brunch filled with family and fun, chances are Ellen O’Connor and her daughter Elizabeth Cole will find moments to discuss the Woman’s Board of Boys & Girls Club’s Diamond Ball, the 75th anniversary gala they co-chair June 1 under a magnificent tent at the Museum of Contemporary Art.


I recently spoke with these Chicago legends of leadership, and saw that the mission of Elizabeth’s Salveo lifestyle program she created “to help women to live their most vital lives and to truly thrive” defines this mother-daughter team.  With a goal of raising $1.75 million to benefit the programs for 20,000 youths the 24 Boys & Girls Clubs in Chicago clubs in Chicago


“A year and a half ago our Woman’s Board President Colette Smithburg ask us to co-chair the Diamond Ball.  We felt that mother-daughter team honors the work of those who went before and is a great bridge to the future,” Ellen said. “The Ball has been held in 25 different locations in its past 75 years, and this is the first at the Museum of Contemporary Art.  I remember earlier galas at the Post and Paddock Club at the Arlington Race Track.”


Colette Cachey Smithburg told us:


“As chairs of the 75th Boys & Girls Club Diamond Ball, Ellen and her daughter Elizabeth will illuminate the night, their radiant spirits dedicated to helping children in need. A torch passed from mother to daughter, their commitment to philanthropy, service to others and Chicago’s welfare shines brightly, guiding the way for a better tomorrow.”


Jacky Ferro and Michael Ferro, left, Colette Smithburg and Tom Smithburg, Cece Ricketts and Tom Ricketts at the 2023 Gala.  Jacky Ferro and Cece Richetts served as Co-Chairs


Their words about one another are Mother’s Day inspirations:


Ellen: “I had three boys and imagined that my next child would also be a boy.  When Elizabeth was born I saw it as an omen of good faith, and as it turned out that was right.  I have never been disappointed.


“I joined the Woman’s Board in 1977. When I first joined the board it was just the Chicago Boys Club, girls were added later thanks to a contingent that wanted it realigned.


 “From the first being on the board was a family affair.  Elizabeth helped sell raffle tickets at the Gala when she was 10 years old. It was so nice to have her there and not to leave her at home, and she was wonderful at this assignment.


Elizabeth:  “It is truly an honor and a privilege to plan an event with my Mom.  She is the best of the best and I have learned so much from observing her work over the years.  I watched her chair every major event around the city while I was growing up and was in awe of the hours and effort she would put into each one to make it such a success. And as a young girl, I loved watching her get glammed up at home and seeing her don the ball gowns – she always looked like a princess to me!  

“Then when I was a young adult, my Mom was asked to chair the opening of The Museum Campus and, a few years later, the opening of Millennium Park–two of the biggest celebrations the City has ever seen!  Both events were truly spectacular and I witnessed first hand how she handled various challenges. For the Museum Campus opening, there was a major windstorm on the day the tent was being set up and she remained cool as a cucumber. Then the Bulls final playoff game was scheduled for the same night and rather than loose the crowd, she made the game time decision to bring in huge screens to show the game live in the tent – as she said at the time – “if you can’t beat um, join um!”  And who could forget how she orchestrated fireworks being shot off the tops of buildings around Millennium Park?  It was truly a feat and something to behold!”  


The board’s camaraderie and allegiance to the organization’s mission was another reason these two busy women said yes to the assignment. 


Ellen O’Connor and Elizabeth Cole with Renee Fleming at a Lyric Opera Ball


Ellen:  “These role models to me roll up their sleeves and show up at the clubs whether to read to the kids and to participate on our scholarship programs where they explore with groups of club members.  There will be lots of energy under the tent that night because our board members are so involved, and 100 percent have pledged financial participation. Each year Boys & Girls Clubs has two major events, the Gala and the Youth of the Year Award when a student is honored for work for his or her club and the community.  Both of these are very important to our board.”


Yzrakhyah, Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago’s 2023 Jr. Youth of the Year


Commitment to philanthropy is a cornerstone of the family. Jim O’Connor, Ellen’s husband and Elizabeth’s father died last year, leaving a remarkable community legacy.  CEO of Commonwealth Edison, when appointed one of the youngest CEOs of a publically run company in the country and one of the longest tenured, was Founding Chairman of the Big Shoulders Fund which raised over $600M in support of 92 Catholic schools in under-resourced communities among his many community leadership roles.


The O’Connors at a Lyric Opera.          Photo Credit: Ramzi Dreessen


Elizabeth:  We have the shared commitment of making where you live better. My mom and dad devoted themselves to the underserved populations around us, setting an example of living out how important that is.”


Ellen: “Elizabeth and I definitely share the same goals around philanthropy, all our family does.  We make the most out of being in the same place at the same time, not just grabbing a coffee at Starbucks.”


The co-chairs are excited about the Diamond Ball live and silent auctions which they describe as “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities. The Life auction includes golf at Bandon Dunes, named the “world’s best golf course”, a suite for 20 guests at the June 27th Soldier Field Rolling Stones concert, a Parisian luxury getaway at the historic Hotel Plaza Athenee with dining and a behind-the-scenes experience at Christie’s Paris, and a Cubs package, including tickets to the Wrigley Field Concert Series, and a dinner for 10 at the Clubhouse, featuring John Vincent singing during cocktails.



Elizabeth summed up her feelings on Mother’s Day:


“Overall, Mom wanted us to be wonderful people.  She is such a leader, such a force.  There was a running joke in the family that I had to stand a little taller.  My parents weren’t your traditional disciplinarians, and they parented by example.  We all wanted to be like them.”


Mimi LeClair, President and CEO, with members of the Gantz Club


Founded in 1902, Boys &Girls Clubs of Chicago is one of the oldest youth development organizations in Chicago. Its mission is to enable all young people, especially those who need them the most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens. Serving thousands of youth – ages five to 18+ – annually at 24 Club locations across Chicago, BGCC works to equip members with the emotional, educational, physical, and cultural resources that allow them to enjoy their childhood and thrive in adulthood. Learn more at