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O’Brien, former WMU exec, dies at 75

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Dellanna West O’Brien, the first international missionary to serve as executive director/treasurer of Woman’s Missionary Union, died Sunday, Sept. 7, in Frisco, Texas. She was 75.

“Dellanna O’Brien is one of the most amazing women I have ever known,” Wanda S. Lee, O’Brien’s successor as executive director/treasurer of WMU, said. “She possessed a deep love for the Lord and her family and made countless sacrifices as she led WMU through 10 challenging years in our denomination. I will remember her as a great friend, leader, educator, innovator and loving wife and mother — but most of all, as a humble and diligent servant of Christ and his mission.”

O’Brien assumed leadership of the national missions organization in 1989 and was instrumental in propelling WMU into the 21st century with new and innovative ways to engage a larger audience in missions. In addition to leading approximately 1.1 million women, girls and preschoolers in missions education and involvement, co-ed missions materials made their debut during her tenure, and three new co-ed missions organizations were begun: Adults on Mission, Youth on Mission and Children in Action.

Many of WMU’s hands-on missions initiatives also were begun under O’Brien’s leadership, including Volunteer Connection, to plan and direct a volunteer program for hands-on missions experiences; Christian Women’s Job Corps, a ministry seeking to equip women for life and employment in a Christian context; WorldCrafts, a ministry that imports handmade crafts from impoverished artisans worldwide and markets them in the United States, providing these artisans with income for food, shelter, education and medicine; and Project HELP, which gives awareness and visibility to a specific social and moral issue and ties in local, national and international projects to assist the church in addressing the designated issue.

Several other firsts include WMU assuming responsibilities from the International Mission Board to arrange housing for missionaries while on stateside assignment; assuming responsibilities from the SBC’s former Brotherhood Commission for Pure Water, Pure Love, a ministry that provides water filters and purification systems to missionaries; creating a separate department within WMU for a book imprint, New Hope Publishers; combining Baptist Women and Baptist Young Women organizations with a new name, Women on Mission, and renaming the WMU publication for this audience, Royal Service, to Missions Mosiac; and establishing the WMU Foundation to help secure WMU’s financial future by providing for the mission and ministries of WMU.

“A woman of great vision, Dellanna was a servant leader with a natural desire and deep commitment and calling to serve others,” said June Whitlow, who served as an associate executive director for WMU alongside O’Brien. “She had the ability to anticipate the future and its consequences and was willing to take risks for what she believed to be right. Dellanna made a positive difference in the lives of people around the world.”

Carolyn Miller of Huntsville, Ala., who served as president of national WMU from 1991–96, credited O’Brien as being her “guide and stay throughout my five years as national WMU president.

“Our personal relationship went far beyond all the meetings we planned and countless miles we traveled together,” Miller continued. “She was always positive in every situation and loving in all circumstances. One could never have a better friend than Dellanna O’Brien.”

Born on July 20, 1933, in Wichita Falls, Texas, O’Brien earned a bachelor of science degree from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, in 1953 and worked as an elementary school teacher from 1953–63. For the next nine years, 1963–71, she served with her husband Bill and children as missionaries to Indonesia through the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). While there, she taught English and piano at a seminary in Semarang. Upon returning to the United States, O’Brien pursued graduate studies and received a master’s degree in education from Texas Christian University in 1972 and a doctorate in education from Virginia Tech in 1983.

Prior to her post at WMU, she served as president of the International Family and Children’s Educational Services, a nonprofit organization she founded to provide educational testing services for missionary kids (MKs).

O’Brien suffered a stroke in 1998, but continued to serve WMU faithfully. Upon her retirement a year later, in 1999, WMU established the Dellanna West O’Brien Leadership Award as a way to honor O’Brien and her legacy while recognizing a dynamic female leader who also shows her same penchant for leadership and dedicated service.

Even in retirement, O’Brien remained true to her missions calling.

“After announcing our retirement, we returned to Texas to be near two of our three children and settled down to retirement, but somehow it never took,” O’Brien shared during the 2007 WMU Missions Celebration and Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas. “We continued to have missions opportunities through the BWA [Baptist World Alliance] and found numerous opportunities to challenge our church and others to faithful response to God’s command to evangelize the nations.”

Following the tsunami that devastated Indonesia and other southern Asia regions in December 2004, O’Brien told of how she and her husband returned “to the land we loved.” For the next year and a half, the O’Briens served in Banda Aceh as volunteers as they provided trauma counseling, assisted women with securing small business loans and renovated buildings, among other humanitarian relief efforts. Reflecting on this experience, O’Brien said, “When you have a Commander and Chief who is constantly nudging, challenging, encouraging, supporting, equipping — and is aware and attentive to all your needs — retirement in not an option.”

Author of four books, O’Brien is survived by her husband of 56 years; two daughters, Denise Basden of Frisco, Texas, and Erin Puryear of Richmond, Va.; a son, William Ross O’Brien of Dallas; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Preston Trail Community Church in Frisco, Texas.

The family asks that memorials be sent to the WMU Foundation, 100 Missionary Ridge, Birmingham, AL 35242 or the Dellanna O’Brien Chair for the School of Social Work at Baylor University, c/o WMU Foundation, 100 Missionary Ridge, Birmingham, AL 35242.

Julie Walters is Woman’s Missionary Union’s communications specialist.