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1946 – 2019

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It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Dr. Mary Ellen Lane, the heart and soul of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC). Mary Ellen died on November 3, 2019, after an extended illness, surrounded by her husband Colin Davies and daughter Julia.  


In 1986, Mary Ellen became the Executive Director of CAORC. Before that time, CAORC was an unknown part-time organization that loosely coordinated the activities of a dozen American Overseas Research Centers that supported U.S. and international scholars doing work in the social sciences and humanities. Under the dynamic leadership of Mary Ellen, CAORC became a leading organization in the field of international scholarship. She helped to secure support for existing centers and worked to establish centers in areas of the world where infrastructure was lacking to support research exchange. She worked with American and host-country scholars and officials to found new centers in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Iraq, Mexico, Mongolia, Palestine, Senegal, the South Caucasus, and Sri Lanka. By the time she retired from CAORC after 28 years in 2014, the number of centers had grown to twenty-three doing work in twenty-seven countries.

Dr. Leonardo Villalón, CAORC Board Chair, reflected, “Mary Ellen helped build many institutions, but most importantly she motivated and inspired people across the world to reach across borders, cultures, and politics in the search for mutual understanding and respect. We are all the better for her life’s work.”

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Mary Ellen testified before the U.S. Congress and coordinated efforts on international exchanges with the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Education, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was recognized by policymakers in the U.S. Congress, federal government, foundations, and the academic community as an expert on promoting international exchanges, fostering connections, and developing new scholarly programs.


"Congress and the State Department often called on Mary Ellen's expertise and experience to create new centers and other innovative programs to promote international academic exchange in key regions," said Richard Spees, the current Executive Director of CAORC. "She had the unique combination of wit, sensitivity and understanding to promote new centers, and foster scholars and research across cultures.” 

"One of Mary Ellen’s greatest strengths was her ability to guide and mentor both people and institutions," added Heidi Wiederkehr, who served as Deputy Director of CAORC with Mary Ellen for seventeen years, and remains in that position. "No matter the situation, she knew who to call and which people to connect in order to make things happen. Without her, the CAORC family will never be the same."

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Mary Ellen was born on December 9, 1946. Along with the doctorate in Egyptology she received from the University of Paris IV Sorbonne, Mary Ellen also earned degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before joining CAORC, Mary Ellen was the assistant director and outreach coordinator for the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) in Cairo. During her time in Egypt she taught at the American University in Cairo, and was co-director of the Fayyum Archaeological Project.

Throughout Mary Ellen’s long tenure, she helped centers respond to urgent situations – disruptions during the “Arab Spring,” the preservation of fragile antiquities, and the threatened loss of Department of Education Title VI funds. With Mary Ellen’s entrepreneurial leadership, CAORC was able to capitalize on several opportunities – helping scholars organize new centers, increasing CAORC’s outreach, and establishing new fellowships. When she retired as CAORC Executive Director in 2014, the Board created the Mary Ellen Lane Fund in her honor. The Fund enables future CAORC Directors to respond to emergencies, benefit from unexpected opportunities, and provide for special needs of the centers and the international scholar community.


Mary Ellen's family has asked that gifts in her memory go to the Mary Ellen Lane Fund in lieu of flowers. In Mary Ellen’s honor and memory, CAORC will match all contributions to this Fund, to create a robust fund so that future CAORC Directors can continue to support worthwhile projects throughout the world. We will share the names of all contributors with her husband, Colin Davies, as well as the CAORC Board.


A memorial service to celebrate the life of Mary Ellen Lane will be held on Saturday, January 25, 2020 at 11:00 am at the National United Methodist Church, 3401 Nebraska Ave NW, Washington DC, 20016.

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