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Ellen C. Warmbrunn: counselor, mother, vivacious spirit

Ellen C. Warmbrunn, 89, a Pomona College graduate and longtime Claremont resident, died on May 2.

Born in Seattle in 1929, she grew up on the shores of Lake Washington with Mt. Rainier on the horizon. Her father was a lawyer and civic leader who, during the Depression, once accepted a carrot juicer as payment for his services. Her mother worked with numerous community organizations, including Seattle’s Orthopedic Hospital and the League of Women Voters.

Ellen attended Roosevelt High School, graduating fifth out of a class of 589. In 1947, she arrived in Claremont and entered Pomona College, where she majored in sociology. After graduation, she set out to see the world. Within months she was working at Pestalozzi Kinderdorf, a home for war orphans in Switzerland.

During subsequent travels throughout Western Europe, she developed a love of trains and adventure that she would carry with her for the rest of her life. When she returned to Seattle, she became an associate foreign student adviser at the University of Washington, where she worked for six years while taking graduate courses in psychology and sociology.

She met the man who would become her husband at a conference on foreign student advising at Stanford University. Werner Warmbrunn was a German-Jewish refugee working on his PhD in European history and running Stanford’s International Center. In 1961, Ellen and Werner were married on a boat in Amsterdam.

The couple moved to Claremont in 1964 when Werner became a founding faculty member of Pitzer College. They had two daughters, Erika and Susan, and within a few years Ms. Warmbrunn returned to student advising as a career-planning counselor at Scripps College. She and Werner divorced, but remained collaborative co-parents for the rest of their lives.

Following an overexposure to pesticides in the early 1980s, she struggled with health issues. Ever the avid reader and researcher, she became an expert in chemical sensitivity and immune-system disorders before those conditions were widely recognized.

Although no longer able to work outside the home, she continued to be an ad-hoc counselor for friends and family. Professionally, she was a master of resumé writing, but personally she saw people as much more than their career accomplishments. On her own resumé, she once listed her notable characteristics as “analytical, perceptive; supportive, enthusiastic; integrity, directness.”

Her daughters second that assessment and would add many more descriptors to the list. She was consummately kind and inherently generous. She gave bounteous gifts, wrote elaborate birthday poems and kept a closet full of presents “just in case.” She had an ageless sense of fun and play: Erika and Susan recall that she once let a neighbor’s Shetland pony into their house for a birthday party.

When she developed dementia more than a decade ago, she lost her memories but retained her essential self, continuing to take delight in things great and small: the company of those she loved, the colors of autumn leaves, the songs of Pete Seeger, and any and all flavors of ice cream. She emanated lightness and light. As one family friend recalled recently, “She smiled from her toes.”

Loving and beloved, she ended her 89-year journey early on a spring morning, with the windows open and her daughters holding her hands.

She requested no service, only that her ashes be scattered in the waters and mountains where she grew up.