Elaine O’Farrell, 1961-2022: Speechwriter and ex-editor ‘feared and revered’

“She lived life to the extreme, and I never met anyone who didn’t like her.”

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Despite her diminutive stature — “Five feet and a digit,” she used to say — Elaine O’Farrell was possessed of an outsized personality and wit, a gregarious firecracker and storyteller who lit up rooms when she entered, always leaving them with more friends than when she arrived.

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A onetime journalist and editor, including at the Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Province, Edmonton Sun, St. Albert Gazette and Maclean’s magazine, and more recently a speechwriter with Health Canada, O’Farrell died on Feb. 19 in a drowning accident while snorkeling amongst stingrays in the Caribbean Sea off Puerto Morelos, Mexico, south of Cancún, where she was vacationing with her family. A celebration of life is being held at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the British Hotel in Aylmer/Gatineau.

“She lived life to the extreme,” says her husband, Doug Hoover, “and I never met anyone who didn’t like her.”

Even as a youngster, the Ottawa-born O’Farrell knew she wanted to be a journalist, telling family and her Grade 2 classmates at Hawthorne Public School of her plans. Following graduation from Canterbury High School, she attended Carleton University’s School of Journalism, graduating with honours.

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It was while working as a journalist in Edmonton in 1990 that she met the equally gregarious University of Alberta law student Doug Hoover. The couple announced their engagement three weeks later and married in 1991, on the summer solstice. They subsequently moved to the Ottawa area, where their two daughters, Samantha and Zoe Hoover, were born.

In 1994, O’Farrell started Wordstruck Communications firm, providing speeches and other written material for numerous government departments. In 2011, she joined Natural Resources Canada as a senior speechwriter, then moved to Health Canada as a senior communications strategist and speechwriter in 2014. She worked at Health Canada until her death.

As an editor, she was simultaneously feared and revered, earning the nicknames “Little Hitler,” “Pen Elaine” (she was a Beatles fan) and “The Irish Butcher.”

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Outside of work, she was a passionate reader — contemporary fiction in particular.

“The best gift I ever gave her was when I built a nine-foot, floor-to-ceiling bookcase with a rolling library ladder,” Doug recalls. “That made her cry.”

The gift, he jokes, wasn’t entirely unselfish: It helped declutter the house of the many stacks of books and was a reminder that regularly got him out of the bad books on occasions when he fell out of favour with his wife.

“It’s been a get-out-of-jail card for the past 15 years.”

An avid gardener, kayaker and bicyclist, her favourite activity was simply going out to meet friends and make new ones.

“She’d walk into a room and walk out with 10 new friends,” Doug says, “and she’d keep in contact with them.”

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Elaine O’Farrell, right, with her children Samantha Hoover, left, and Zoe Hoover, centre.
Elaine O’Farrell, right, with her children Samantha Hoover, left, and Zoe Hoover, centre. Photo by Provided photo /courtesy of Doug Hoover

She also loved music, both live and recorded. It was playing wherever she was, and she frequently attended concerts and introduced friends to musicians and groups they didn’t know, including the likes of Bahamas, Reuben and the Dark, Jim Bryson and Whitehorse.

“Music was a really important part of our friendship,” says Danica Steadman, O’Farrell’s best friend. “We went to shows at all kinds of venues, and we had epic kitchen dance parties. Sometimes there were only two or four of us, but that didn’t stop us. And she played a mean air guitar.

“But you can’t be as funny and as quick to laugh as she was without wearing your heart on your sleeve,” Steadman adds. “People who are like that are often quick to cry, and she was no exception. Even saying, ‘You’re not going to cry again?’ would make her cry. Not out of sadness, but because she was grateful and proud.”

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She was also thoughtful, Steadman says. “She was always thinking of her friends. I love the Food & Wine magazine, and every season I would find it in my mailbox.”

What did bother O’Farrell was food that wasn’t spicy — her desk at Health Canada was littered not with pens, but with bottles of hot sauce — and people posting photographs of her on social media that she hadn’t first OK’d. She also detested semicolons, backslashes and titles and subject lines without verbs.

“The reporter in her never died,” says Erin Seller, a friend and O’Farrell’s manager at Health Canada. “Her dedication to the story never died.

“And I always hated editing or reviewing her speeches because I always thought I was just putting in mistakes.”

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She was never punctual, nor concerned about it, and could instinctively tell when Doug, in an effort to be on time, lied to her about when they were expected at a function.

“We would have big parties at our house, and she would be 45 minutes late coming down the stairs.”

Mackenzie Scott describes her Aunt Elaine as a mentor who encouraged her own journalism career and recent switch to study communications.

“She had a charismatic personality that just made you want to talk to her. She was a storyteller who brought that to everything she did, and, even in my classes now, I want to text her to ask her things.

“And she and Uncle Doug weren’t just married,” Scott adds. “They were still so much in love into their 60s, like they were in their 30s, and you could tell. Theirs is definitely the type of relationship I would want.”

It was certainly the type of relationship that Doug and Elaine wanted. “I had her for 30 years,” Doug says. “Three hundred wouldn’t have been enough. I was very lucky, punching way above my weight class.”

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