Ed and Inez Donley

Inez Cantrell Donley and Edward Donley both grew up on poor farms, but made a wonderful life for themselves by getting a good education and working hard. In 1987, they created the Donley Foundation as their way of giving back to young people striving to get an education, job skills, and life skills.

Inez Cantrell (1915-2013) grew up in Possum Holler, Tennessee, the fifth of seven children. Her mother died when Inez was just 5, and the family moved to Alabama where they picked cotton as sharecroppers.

Inez (front row, second from right) about age 8 (early 1920s), attending school with her siblings Grace and Hank and classmates in New Market, Alabama.
Inez (front row, second from right) about age 8 (early 1920s), attending school with her siblings Grace and Hank and classmates in New Market, Alabama.

Inez liked school, especially English. She finished second in her class at New Market, AL High School and was a tenacious 5’2” center on the basketball team. But Inez had to miss school for long stretches to pick cotton. She finally graduated at age 20 in 1936, the depth of the Great Depression, but the only work she could find was cleaning houses in the nearest city, Chattanooga.

Inez used her small income to enroll in Sawyer Business School, where she learned typing, shorthand and bookkeeping. She used those skills to get successively better jobs at a sawmill, a War Department munitions factory, and in 1943 at Air Products, a new company making oxygen generators used in Allied bombers in World War II.

Edward Donley (1921-2017) was the grandson of Irish immigrants who built a log cabin on farmland north of Detroit in the 1850s. After Ed’s father lost his job in the auto industry during the Depression, his parents and their seven children moved back to the cabin and worked the farm.

Ed (tallest boy) in front of the family’s log cabin home 29 miles north of Detroit, about age 12 during the Depression, early 1930s.
Ed (tallest boy) in front of the family’s log cabin home 29 miles north of Detroit, about age 12 during the Depression, early 1930s.

Ed was a good student, but his college applications were at first rejected in 1939 because the rural high school he attended was unaccredited. Just before the start of fall classes, though, Ed won a scholarship to Lawrence Technological University in Detroit. Ed graduated near the top of his class in mechanical engineering and was hired by Air Products in Chattanooga.

Ed and Inez met at work, were married in 1946, and later moved to Allentown, PA where Air Products had relocated. The company grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s by supplying liquefied gases to the steel industry and Defense Department, and today has more than 16,000 employees and $8 billion in sales worldwide. Ed was a key leader in the company’s growth, and ultimately became CEO and Chairman from 1973 to 1986.

Ed and Inez Donley on their wedding day in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1946
Ed and Inez Donley on their wedding day in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1946

Even as Ed and Inez were busy at work and rearing three young children, they became active in various community causes in the 1950s. Inez volunteered and energetically raised money for – to name just a few – the Red Cross, Wiley House/KidsPeace (a home for orphans and children from broken families, where she was board chair for 15 years), and the Allentown Public Library (board chair for 25 years). In addition to Ed’s professional accomplishments, including chairing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Lawrence Tech, he was a statewide and national leader in a host of early-childhood education initiatives.

In presenting Ed and Inez with its lifetime advocacy award, Community Services for Children in Allentown said: “Children could have no more effective advocates than you. Your lives reflect the meaning of philanthropy in its purest form: the love of mankind. For all the children who ask only that they, too, may have a chance at a better life, we thank you.”

Ed and Inez lived modestly, giving away much of their money during their lifetimes. They contributed the rest to the Donley Foundation, and asked their children Martha, Tom and John, along with their children and grandchildren, to use the Foundation’s money to provide a helping hand today to young people who have the drive and dedication to succeed but need financial assistance to reach their dreams.

Ed and Inez Donley in 1997
Ed and Inez Donley in 1997