Cover photo for Ellen Whelan's Obituary
Ellen Whelan Profile Photo

Ellen Whelan

November 26, 1956 — October 23, 2023

Ellen Whelan



November 26, 1956 – October 19, 2023


“The single most amazing person I have ever encountered.”


Ellen Whelan, devoted wife of Bill, loving sister of John (Cindy), Tom (Diane) and David (Dana) Hollister, and sister-in-law of Hugh (Jan), Alexandra Dunietz and Anna Farrow (Doug), died Thursday October 19 at the age of 66.  Besides her immediate family, she is survived by 11 nephews, seven nieces, and too many grandnieces and grandnephews to count.


Born November 26, 1956 in Cleveland, Ohio, she was the third of four to Betty and Jack Hollister. She attended Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland where she was an honors student, President of her class, and a star athlete in field hockey, soccer, tennis, track, and skiing.  She spent her summers in the wilds of the Rockies where she became a Mountain Guide for Telluride Mountaineering and Montana Outdoor Leadership.  


Ellen headed off to Mount Holyoke College. After finishing freshman year, she had transferred to Stanford University.  She never made it.  In the summer of 1976 she suffered an automobile accident.  Her spine severed; Ellen became quadriplegic at age 19.


For the next two years, she adjusted to life in a wheelchair.  These were trying times.  With the devoted support of family and friends and her parents in particular, she chose to re-double her plans, and to not let her disability interfere with her pursuit of a life of contribution and achievement.


After a full six months in New York City’s Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation, and six months at home spent returning to the classroom at Cleveland State, Ellen entered the University of California at Davis. She talked her dear best friend from Cleveland, Laurie McNeil, into becoming her roommate and classmate.  Ellen went on to graduate as a Phi Beta Kappa in Art History.  


She was then admitted as the first wheelchair-bound student at Stanford Law School.  During her second summer at Stanford, Ellen took an internship with the San Diego law firm of Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye.  There she had the next big change in her life—she met Bill Whelan.


Bill was a UCLA Law student who had an internship with the same law firm that summer.  They married in May of 1985.


After graduating from Stanford Law School to a standing ovation from her classmates, Ellen practiced trusts and estates law with Gray Cary – which in time became the international law firm DLA Piper.  She was an exceptional attorney, deeply devoted to her clients.


In November 2022, Ellen and her colleagues in the trusts and estates group of DLA Piper joined the distinguished international firm of Duane Morris to expand its trusts and estates practice to the West Coast.  Although her tenure at Duane Morris was brief, her impact was felt throughout the firm.  In a message sent to the entire firm, its Chairman remarked that “as we mourn the loss of Ellen, we also celebrate the remarkable journey of a woman who, against all odds, redefined what is possible in our profession and in life.”


In addition to her legal work, Ellen made significant contributions of time and energy to various charitable causes.  She served as a Board member of several esteemed organizations, including the San Diego Museum of Art, Mingei International Museum, San Diego Symphony Foundation, Jewish Community Foundation, Rady Children's Hospital Foundation, Girl Scouts San Diego, and the YMCA.  Her contributions to these organizations have left an indelible mark on San Diego’s cultural fabric. 


When not advising clients, Ellen preferred to talk with others about their interests, about art, books, ideas, and about family, friends, and fun.  She and Bill traveled throughout the world, both by themselves and with family and friends.  


It is not an exaggeration to say that Ellen touched everyone she met – touched by her smile, her wisdom, her elegance, her humor, her interest in others, and her sheer determination to contribute, excel, and to never compromise.  As one long term family friend from Cleveland put it: “She is the single most amazing person I have ever encountered.”


Her legacy will continue to be a guiding light for many. Her clients, friends and family will be telling “Ellen stories” for the rest of their lives. She will continue to inspire those who have known her through her example of resilience, determination, and the immeasurable effect of giving back to the community.  None of us can overstate what losing her means but can all remain comforted by what having her in our lives has meant.

A Celebration of Life will be held in San Diego at a place and time to be announced later.  The family asks that in lieu of flowers, contributions in her memory be made to ALS Research at Massachusetts General Hospital (


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