The O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke lost one of its most valuable volunteers Wednesday, when Ellen Arnold died of complications from injuries she sustained in a fall.
The 88-year-old Salem resident was the museum’s go-to expert when it came to choosing photos by the late O. Winston Link for an exhibition — she had catalogued the 4,600 negatives in the vault herself. Even before the museum opened in 2004, she had a connection to Link — she and her husband Bill were personal friends of the New York City artist.
Her husband, also 88, said his wife was accepting and gracious to the last, telling him, “We’ve lived a good life and I have enjoyed what I have done.”
“She really was just an incredible resource for us and definitely one of the fiercest supporters this museum has ever had,” wrote Lynsey Allie, museum manager for the Historical Society of Western Virginia, which operates the Link Museum. “We are going to miss her greatly.”
Historical Society curator Ashley Webb described Arnold as a “quiet and steadfast presence” in the museum. “She was the most radiant when discussing Link and his work, and took so much joy in working with his photographs in our collection.”
Though she was never a museum employee, Arnold’s in-depth knowledge of the contents and history of the museum’s collection led to curating exhibitions. She and Webb co-curated last year’s “Links Unseen” exhibition, featuring images never before displayed in the museum.
In 2014, for the 10-year anniversary of the museum’s opening, Arnold solo curated “Link 100: The First Century of O. Winston Link,” including rarely seen images and examples that showed how Link, decades before Photoshop, manipulated his images to create the atmospheric nighttime scenes of Norfolk and Western locomotive rolling through rural settings that made him famous.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said then. “I’ve had a great time putting this together.”
Born Eulalia Ellen Martin in Carroll County in 1930, she attended Radford College, where she met her future husband of 67 years during the time he was living in Radford and commuting to Virginia Tech. As he recalled it, she was part of a trio of young women walking to campus. He knew one of the women, and said to her, “I already know you, introduce me to your friend. That was Ellen. The other two girls went on in, but me and Ellen stayed and talked. That’s when we started our friendship.”
A year later he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. When he came home for Christmas, he proposed. They married and she moved with him to El Paso, Texas, until his discharge from the military. They eventually settled in Roanoke, where Bill went to work in the marketing department of General Electric, where he stayed for 38 years while Ellen raised their two daughters.
After riding a train excursion pulled by the Norfolk & Western J-Class 611 locomotive in 1983 from Roanoke to Norfolk, the Arnolds joined the Roanoke chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. “Ellen said, ‘That’s a group I’d like to be involved with, let’s join,’ so we went to their next meeting,” Bill Arnold said. At the time the society ran the gift shop at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
Putting in volunteer hours in the gift shop, the Arnolds met O. Winston Link. When the shop ordered Link’s books, “he would come there to sign them.” Link would ask for assistance from Ellen with things like holding open the books, unrolling the posters and bringing coffee, ultimately developing “a good, friendly relationship with him.”
Ellen Arnold put it this way: “I was his mother.” The couple became close to the photographer, visiting each other’s homes, and that friendship continued until Link’s death in 2001. Together, the couple went on to put in about 9,000 volunteer hours for the venture that became the O. Winston Link Museum.
“If I was looking for anything in particular she often knew exactly where to find it,” Allie wrote. “I could ask her a very obscure question about any Link photo and she would be like, ‘Oh yes, let me show you!’ and she would pull out all sorts of past publications and tell me all kinds of history about it — she knew so much!”
Services are private. Ellen Arnold is survived by her husband, two daughters and sons-in-law, and a granddaughter and grandaughter's husband. Donations in her memory can be made to the O. Winston Link Museum gift shop.