Exchange Matters / June 24, 2020

In Memoriam: Ella R. Torrey (1926-2020)

By Andrea W. Silva, Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia

On April 14, the United States lost a champion for international peace and human rights, citizen diplomat Ella R. Torrey.

A dynamic and innovative executive, Ella’s life-long commitment to international cooperation was ignited by tragedy: just three weeks before beginning her studies at Bennington College, her older brother Louis was killed during World War II. From this, Ella decided that war is not the answer, and spent the next 50 years of her career working toward a more peaceful world.

In 1948, Ella took her first international job working for the Chicago Tribune’s bureau in Paris. She later became an editor of Al Misri, then Egypt’s largest daily newspaper. Her Paris press and diplomatic connections led to a position as the information officer for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York – where she reported on meetings of the Security Council, the General Assembly, and other UN committees – and was at the heart of major U.S. policy issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the unification of western German states into the Federal Republic of Germany.

Ella was soon promoted to serve as an aide for Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been appointed by President Truman as a U.S. delegate to the UN, where she handled correspondence, speeches, and international press briefings. The morning of December 10, 1948 marked another significant point in Ella’s career when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was unanimously passed at three o’clock in the morning and all of the delegates rose to give a standing ovation to Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

In 2015, Ella shared stories of her experience with Mrs. Roosevelt at the Opening Session of the UN Educators Conference on Human Rights. “Mrs. Roosevelt used to always say that you find yourself by serving others,” and that’s what Ella went on to do.

After leaving the UN, Ella created high school programs for the World Affairs Councils in Providence, RI and Bethlehem, PA. In 1969, she moved to Philadelphia with her husband and four children. From 1971 to 1977, Ella served the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia as director of community affairs, leading numerous cultural exchange tours to China, Nepal, and the Soviet Union, and then joined Citizen Diplomacy International (then known as the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia) as its executive director from 1977 to 1987.

Ella launched Philadelphia as a key city for guests of the U.S. Department of State’s leadership programs, and grew IVC into the largest citizen diplomacy organization in the United States at the time, serving more than 4,000 international visitors a year seeking business, cultural, and government connections in the Philadelphia region.

Ella established the first telephone hotline language bank, staffed by volunteers, which provided translation services in 30 different languages to hospitals, police, and others in need. Thanks to her commitment and vision, Philadelphia established and expanded Sister City relationships with Douala, Cameroon; Kobe, Japan; Incheon, Korea; and Tianjin, China. In 1984, Ella led IVC’s first trip to West Africa, visiting Senegal and The Gambia. She also created the Compass program, now Young Diplomats, engaging a new generation of Philadelphians in foreign affairs.

Upon her retirement, Ella focused her volunteer activities as a board member and activist. She was a founding member of the Philadelphia Committee on Foreign Relations and a member of Global Philadelphia. In 2015, Ella received the UN Human Rights Hero Award from the U.S. Mission to the UN for her 50 years of service. At age 90, Ella presented on human rights in a virtual conference with educators from all over the world and was interviewed on WHYY, a public broadcasting service serving Philadelphia.

What can we all learn from Ella? In her own words to students at UN Day: “Each of you can look around your neighborhood, your school and surroundings to find opportunities to make sure every person is aware of his or her rights and freedoms.”


Citizen Diplomacy International would not be the organization we are today without Ella’s passion and vision.” –Siobhán Lyons, President and CEO, Citizen Diplomacy International

She was the most amazing mentor, supporter and booster of my leadership of Citizen Diplomacy. It was like having a second mother.” –Nancy Gilboy, Former President and CEO, Citizen Diplomacy International 1989-2015

The nature of the work Ella created was extraordinary. She was dynamic, enthusiastic, and made each person feel as though her or his contribution was paramount. We had a sense that we were making history through her. She made you laugh. She made us all feel that our work was very important.” –Sandy Choukroun, Former President and CEO, IVC, 1987-89