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Ellen Elizabeth (Spann) Nielsen

June 1936 – February 2024

Ellen was born in Salt Lake City in 1936 to Josephine and Albert Spann. Later, the family, which had been joined by her sister Kathryn, moved to Wyoming. She graduated from the University of Wyoming, where she made life-long friends, earned a degree in Speech Pathology, met her future husband Carl, and was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key. 

Ellen and Carl married in 1959 and lived for a short time in Montana, where daughter Kristen was born. After they moved to Portland, Oregon, the family was joined by daughter Julia. Carl’s career took them to Salem for much of the 1970s, where Ellen earned a Master’s Degree in Speech and Language from Western Oregon University, typing her thesis in triplicate on a manual typewriter. After moving back to Portland in the early 1980s, they lived in the same house in Laurelhurst for 40 years, becoming known around the neighborhood for walking a succession of Old English Sheep Dogs and for helping organize the annual block party. 

Ellen embraced a life of service, sustainability and creativity. Her early service work took her to Port Huron, Michigan and inner-city Boston with a dear friend, and she later served children with special needs in small towns in the Willamette Valley and the Columbia Gorge. She was an early adopter of recycling, even donning safety goggles at the local scrap yard to prepare cans and bottles for processing. She baked whole wheat bread, fermented yogurt (efforts to convince the family it was as good as ice cream were not entirely successful), and preserving carloads of U-pick fruits and vegetables long before those skills became popular again. With summers off, she would load the girls in her red VW Squareback, spend the day harvesting, then toil to preserve the bounty. One memorable August day she told the girls to wear their worst clothes, then when no more tomatoes would fit in the car, she let them throw rotten tomatoes at each other until everyone was laughing too hard to stand. Always innovative and never rule-bound, she would sometimes use the washing machine (gentle cycle, no soap!) to wash the sturdier produce. 

She was a talented seamstress, making fashionable outfits for herself and her daughters, as well as making down vests, parkas and a tent from kits.  She knitted countless sweaters, including intricate stranded work and one depicting part of the Bayeux Tapestry. She made several large multimedia fiber pieces and later took up needlepoint, designing her own canvases. 

She loved classical, Renaissance and medieval music, attending concerts and playing a variety of recorders, krummhorns and sackbuts with a group of musicians who became good friends. They were available for events, but truly played for their own enjoyment, gracing the neighborhood with front porch sessions in good weather. 

Her interest in art led her to a second career working in a neighborhood gallery, where she befriended artists and lovingly promoted their work. She also volunteered at the library, mending books and, as she did everywhere, making friends by sharing tea, baked goods, and the occasional pun. She loved going to the neighborhood tap room for lunch and a pint, and was always delighted when her book club friends met her there. 

In the 1990s she discovered the joy of group bicycle tours, and combined that with her love of France to take more than ten trips through the French countryside, often with a good friend, and always stopping in Paris. She and Carl loved to travel off the beaten path – returning from Colombia on a freighter carrying bananas, touring Wales by canal boat, staying on a sheep farm in New Zealand, and cruising the San Juan Islands by sail boat, to name just a few. She and Carl were long-time members of Rose City Yacht Club and made many close friends in the sailing world. 

In the fall of 2023, she and Carl moved to Seattle to be closer to Kristen and Julia. She loved her new apartment with its sunny sitting room and view of the Space Needle, enjoyed time with her girls, and was able to have lunch with Carl nearly every day at his nearby assisted living facility. She died peacefully in her sleep in February after contracting pneumonia. 

Ellen was preceded in death by her parents and her sister Kathryn. She is survived by husband Carl, daughters Kristen Simpson (Dean) and Julia Messmer (Michael). She cherished her connection to Carl’s brother Ben, his wife Jo Ann, and all of her nieces and nephews and their families.

Friends interested in honoring her memory through a donation might consider Sisters of the Road, Oregon Humane, a food bank or animal rescue organization serving their local community, or the Kathryn Vogt Memorial Scholarship at the Portland Community College Foundation, established in memory of her sister. At her request, there will not be a formal service; plans for a spring or summer celebration of life are pending. 


A beautiful human, that Ellen! One of the most important people in my life. She and Carl have been the source of much joy, laughter, and tall tales (mostly true, I'm sure) in my life. Thank you, beautiful Ellen. I miss you already.

Tom McLaughlin

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