Collis staffer Donna O’Gara remembered for her warmth and selflessness

A “ray of sunshine” who went above and beyond for the people around her, O’Gara formed deep relationships with students and coworkers.

by Adriana James-Rodil | 5/5/22 5:05am

Source: Courtesy of Megan O'Gara

Donna O’Gara sought to see the good in each person, encouraging others to do the same and to have a positive outlook on life. All who knew her remember her as radiating kindness and joy. 

O’Gara, who worked at Collis Cafe for more than 26 years, died from stomach cancer at 64 on Monday, April 11. She was at home surrounded by her family. She is survived by her husband Robert O’Gara and daughter Megan O’Gara, along with five siblings and several relatives. 

Even though O’Gara was diagnosed with cancer in December 2020, O’Gara was only out of work for about three months, demonstrating her commitment to Collis and the students with whom she had built relationships, her husband said.

O’Gara was born on May 27, 1957 in Boston, the fourth youngest among six siblings. 

She married Robert in 1980 and moved to West Lebanon in 1982 when she began working for the College. Their daughter, Megan, was born in 1992 after a 10-year battle with infertility.

Robert O’Gara said he remembers his wife as a “very forgiving person.”

“When I started to fault her in my life, she would turn around and look me right in the eye and say, ‘Get on your knees and pray, brother,’” Robert O’Gara said. “She’s just a kind soul who loves people. She never saw the faults in people for some reason. She would always look past people’s faults.”

Donna O’Gara loved Hawai‘i, so they visited the state four times in the past 30 years. She also enjoyed gardening and crafting. 

Before working at Collis, O’Gara spent about two years working at the Courtyard Cafe, her first position at the College. At Collis, she began working at the deli station and then transitioned to making smoothies. 

O’Gara loved to make sandwiches and smoothies but had a “disdain for kale,” her husband said.

O’Gara went beyond her necessary work duties in an effort to make sure all coworkers and students felt loved, appreciated and at home in Hanover. 

In an emailed statement, Dartmouth Dining director Jon Plodzik wrote that O’Gara always exuded “a wonderful laugh, a big smile and [had] such a kind way about her.” 

In her pursuit of fostering an environment of warmth and kindness, Plodzik wrote that O’Gara made each of her co-workers a holiday jam this past winter. Plodzik’s was a “delicious” piña colada-flavored jam. 

Collis manager Doreen Blake described O’Gara as “special” to the cafe. Blake said she has yet to meet another person as open, giving and caring.

“She was always a ray of sunshine and always upbeat and laughing,” Blake said. “She got along with all the employees and students and took the time to get to know them.” 

O’Gara was a familiar face to Ciara Gaffney ’19, who ate most of her meals at Collis with her teammates from the women’s rowing team. She was formally introduced to O’Gara by one of her teammates during her sophomore summer — an interaction which led to a years-long friendship between O’Gara and Gaffney. 

“She was always so warm and welcoming. Every time I entered Collis or saw her around campus, she would have the biggest smile on her face,” Gaffney said. “She really had the biggest heart and shared so much love with all of the students.” 

O’Gara’s caring nature made Gaffney and other students feel at home. Gaffney said O’Gara would frequently check up on her, even hosting dinners at her own house for Gaffney and her teammates. O’Gara also shared her love of crafts with Gaffney, gifting her a handmade pair of earrings that Gaffney said she “absolutely adored.” 

Gaffney said she remembers O’Gara for her attention to the little things. She recalls telling O’Gara that her teammate’s birthday was approaching in the coming weeks, and on the day of the celebration, Donna and Robert surprised the teammate with a birthday cake.

“It’s amazing to think of all the students she made a positive impact on during their Dartmouth experience,” Gaffney said. “I feel very lucky to be one of them.” 

Becca Thomson ’20 Th ’25 said she also knew O’Gara from her daily visits to Collis. O’Gara’s “warm and bright presence” would prompt conversations which developed into a friendship among the two, Thompson said. 

“She was so selfless that she always put the students and the people she was close to first and was always checking in,” Thomson said. “Taking her view of life, which was always so wonderful, and trying to emulate that in my life, I think really impacted me and my time at Dartmouth.”

O’Gara made a difference in her church community as well. Strong in her faith, O’Gara was a prolific and dedicated member at Christ Redeemer Church, which she and her husband began attending around 2003.

There, she met Jeff Fan Tu’14 who moved from the west coast to attend the Tuck School of Business. 

“She was one of the people who welcomed me with open arms,” Fan said. “We clicked and had a bond. We knew that we were there to support each other through the good and the bad.”

Fan said that O’Gara’s optimistic outlook caused others to turn to her for counsel and solace when their lives went awry, and she would never hesitate to offer advice and cheer someone up even in the midst of her own struggles. 

“She was just somebody who, no matter the hardship, was always able to say good and positive things about others and to view life optimistically,” Fan said. 

In 2008, O’Gara became the first person to be awarded with CRC’s Excellence in Vocation Award, given to one church community member each year who has exemplified the genuine service of Christ in their daily lives by treating others with kindness. 

CRC pastor Don Willeman said that he remembers O’Gara’s “infectious laughter,” which showed her sincere commitment to making those around her feel happy as well.

“I would say that she was one of those people who was just 100% pure encouragement. She had an incredibly gracious and compassionate manner about herself,” Willeman said.

Her celebration of life will take place Saturday, May 7, at 11 a.m. at The Hilton Garden Inn in Lebanon.