Nancy Koo, intrepid traveler and Twin Cities executive, dies at 75

Alison Rombough

Table of Contents Over 70% off!99u00a2 for first 4 weeks$3.79 99u00a2 a week In her work as a human resources executive, Nancy Koo was a skilled coach and connector of people. But exploring the world fed her mind and heart. “Whenever we traveled, her suitcase was always the first one […]

In her work as a human resources executive, Nancy Koo was a skilled coach and connector of people. But exploring the world fed her mind and heart.

“Whenever we traveled, her suitcase was always the first one by the front door,” her husband, Bob Donnelly, said.

Koo went to 75 countries and set foot on every continent except Antarctica, most often traveling with her husband, brother and two sisters.

Her family fled China with the rise of Communist leader Mao Zedong when she was 4, an experience that sparked a yearning to understand her own roots as well as the cultures of others.

“Her family left behind a comfortable life,” Donnelly said. “Their more modest circumstances in the United States didn’t close her off. It opened her up. That curiosity about others, about how people live and what people believe, was always a significant part of who she was.”

Koo died May 18 after years of living with dementia and respiratory failure. She was 75.

Koo was born in Jinjiang, a city on the southeast coast of Fujian Province. She grew up in Seattle and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Washington. She moved to the Twin Cities to pursue a graduate degree in counseling psychology at the University of Minnesota.

She was vice president of human resources at the Star Tribune from 1993 to 2001, a period that included the $1.4 billion sale of the company by the Cowles family to McClatchy Co.

Koo later worked as an executive coach at Lee Hecht Harrison and served on the boards of several nonprofits and professional organizations.

“She was always clear thinking, always able to see the big picture,” said Jane Brodie, a longtime friend who served with her on one of those boards. “She was one of the smartest people and one of most curious.”

Early adventures in overseas travel came when she and her first husband, Jack Rhodes, became Peace Corps volunteers in Sarawak, Malaysia, in 1967. Returning with Donnelly more than four decades later, Koo’s former students recalled her gifts as a teacher.

“It was remarkable how warmly they greeted her, how much they remembered about her and how powerful she and her then-husband were in their lives,” Donnelly said.

Koo was drawn to places others might not choose, including Asia, the Middle East and Africa. A memorial in her name aims to support Peace Corps housing at the Magulilwa Secondary School in Tanzania.

She and Donnelly were in Argentina in March 2020 when the coronavirus cut short their travel plans. Koo had lived with an atypical form of dementia since at least 2011. Symptoms began a month after she married Donnelly, whom she had known since 1974. Hoping researchers might learn from her case, Koo submitted to scans and, after she died, donated her brain to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Even as her health deteriorated, Koo delighted in trips to the airport to watch planes take off.

“She would ask about traveling, and when we were going to go again,” Donnelly said. “Even at end of her life she wanted to be at the airport.”

In addition to her husband, Koo is survived by son Jeff Rhodes of San Francisco; daughter Amy Rhodes Brennan of Cincinnati; stepdaughters Elizabeth Donnelly of Windsor, Ontario, and Kathleen Donnelly of Minneapolis; brother George Koo of Mountain View, Calif.; and sisters Helen Koo of Durham, N.C., and Linda Koo of San Mateo, Calif.

A reception and service will be held at 10 a.m. July 3 at Hillside Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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