The descendants of two men who emigrated from the tiny village of Ballyporeen within three years of one another after the famine remarkably went on to form a special relationship, one as an American president and the other who became his trusted advisor on trade issues.
The great grandfather of Ronald Reagan, a man who put Ballyporeen on the map, left the village in 1851. Three years earlier another son of Ballyporeen had left for America and almost a century and a half later the paths of their descendants would cross one another in the White House.
As President Reagan was to rely on successful business man Ed Donley for advice in the eighties, advice the man with roots in Ballyporeen would impart to three more American presidents at the White House, George H W Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush over three decades.
The cover sheet of the ship’s log of the Bark Christianna which sailed from Cork and arrived in New York on August 1, 1848, notes passenger #116 – John Dunlea, age 22. He was the great-grandfather of Ed Donley born on November 26, 1921 in Detroit.
After Ed’s father lost his job during the Depression, the family moved back to their farm on the Irish Road, 29 miles north of Detroit, where Ed and his seven siblings shared a one-room log cabin built by Donley’s great-grandfather, John Dunlea, in the 1850s.
Donley graduated in 1939 from an unaccredited high school, then worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps while applying to dozens of colleges. He later won a scholarship to Lawrence Institute of Technology in Detroit, contingent on maintaining a B-plus average. He graduated in 1943 with a mechanical engineering degree and an A average. He was soon employed by Air Products who had just won a government contract to make portable oxygen generators for Allied bombers, he was Air Products’ 22nd employee.
The company quickly grew to nearly 300 employees and manufactured 241 oxygen units by the end of World War II at a plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Today, Air Products employs about 16,000 people worldwide and is a leading employer in the Lehigh Valley.
Ed met his future wife in Chattanooga: his secretary at Air Products, Inez Cantrell. They wed on October 24, 1946, were married for 66 years until Inez died in 2013 of Alzheimer’s disease, and had three children, ten grandchildren and an ever-growing bevy of great-grandchildren.
Donley served on many business and non-profit boards. He was a director of the US Chamber of Commerce for 11 years and its chairman in 1986-87. During that time, he visited the Reagan White House to discuss trade issues and how to enhance American competitiveness in world markets. He was a board member of the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association (chairman 1978-79), and a member of the Business Roundtable. Donley was a director of American Standard Companies for 18 years (chairman 1992-93), Mellon Bank Corporation (lead outside director), Cooper Tire and Rubber Co, Koppers Company and Pennsylvania Power & Light Co. He served on the Grace Commission on efficiency, the NASA Advisory Council, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Business-Higher Education Forum, a think tank of CEOs and university presidents.
Donley’s passion was education. His grandmother and parents were teachers, and he appreciated the difference that the Lawrence Tech scholarship made in his life. He served on the boards of Lawrence Tech (25 years, 11 as chairman), Carnegie-Mellon University, American College Testing (ACT), the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering, the Council for Higher Educational Accreditation, the National Assessment Governing Board, and the United Negro College Fund. Beginning in 1996, he sponsored the Donley Awards for Excellence given annually to an outstanding senior at each of 29 Lehigh and Northampton County high schools.
Ed and Inez enjoyed travelling in retirement, including five trips to Ireland where they enjoyed Irish theatre and researching family history. In 1996 Ed and Inez donated $25,000 to Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Ballyporeen. A plaque and a chair in memory of John Dunlea, (Ed’s great-grandfather) can be seen in Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Ballyporeen today.
Ed’s busy work schedule left little time for hobbies. He dabbled in golf, sailing, and watching spring training baseball in retirement, mostly as an excuse to spend time with his family. He was an avid reader, a man of science and data but with an equal fondness for history, literature and a well-told tale.
Asked the formula for success at an Air Products Q&A in 2014, Donley said: “Take the job you have today, do the best you can, work diligently at it, look around you and see when there are other possible opportunities. Out of that nature, that spirit, that desire – great things happen.”
On April 1, 2017 Ed Donley died from complications of pneumonia. He was 95.