FRISCO (ABP)—Dellanna West O’Brien, who led the Southern Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union through some of its most trying times, died Sept. 7 at age 75.
She suffered what WMU officials described as “a massive cerebral bleed” Sept. 4 after falling and hitting her head at her home in Frisco, north of Dallas. She died three days later with her husband, Bill, and their three children at her side.
O’Brien served as executive director of the Southern Baptist Convention women’s auxiliary for a decade before retiring in 1999. WMU—which is governed independently and receives no funding from the denomination—had been challenged by many of the fundamentalists who took control of the SBC during that period.
“Dellanna led Woman’s Missionary Union through difficult times, and she faced opposition and personal difficulties head-on and successfully,” said Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler, who preceded O’Brien as WMU head.
Crumpler noted O’Brien continued to lead the organization after suffering a stroke in 1998. She described O’Brien as a “true friend, wife, mother, missionary, educator, mentor, leader and over-comer.”
“Dellanna O’Brien is one of the most amazing women I have ever known,” said Wanda Lee, O’Brien’s successor at WMU. “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.”
During O’Brien’s tenure, WMU developed several new programs, including Christian Women’s Job Corps, to assist women with economic and other challenges. The WMU Foundation also was formed, and WMU opened its first development office under O’Brien. The agency combined its Baptist Women and Baptist Young Women organizations to form Women on Mission.
O’Brien also led WMU to assume responsibility for Pure Water, Pure Love—a ministry that provides water filters and purification systems to missionaries.
“She had the ability to anticipate the future and its consequences and was willing to take risks for what she believed to be right,” said June Whitlow, who served as WMU’s associate executive under O’Brien. “Dellanna made a positive difference in the lives of people around the world.”
O’Brien was the author or co-author of several books, including Timeless Virtues: Lessons in Character for Women and Choosing a Future for U.S. Missions.
Born July 20, 1933, in Wichita Falls, O’Brien earned her bachelor’s degree from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene in 1953 and worked as an elementary school teacher until 1963. She and her family served as SBC Foreign Mission Board missionaries in Indonesia the next nine years.
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. She also holds honorary degrees from Hardin-Simmons University, University of Richmond in Virginia, and Judson College in Alabama.
Prior to her post at WMU, she served as president of the International Family and Children’s Educational Services, a non-profit organization she founded to provide educational-testing services for missionary kids.
She is survived by her husband, Bill, three children and six grandchildren. Bill O’Brien served as an executive with the Foreign Mission Board and, later, as a missions professor.
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.
Johnny Pierce and Robert Marus contributed to this story.