Speaking to visitors inside Faneuil Hall, Dianne Donnelly often concluded tours she gave as a National Park Service ranger by saying: “If these walls could talk, I think what they would say is: ‘Ugh, another ranger talk. When will this talk be over? We’ve heard so many.’ ’’
Colleagues said that adding a self-deprecating twist at the end was characteristic of Ms. Donnelly, whose love of history made her a natural for her work.
“She had a knack for it; she was a real teacher,’’ said Bill Foley, chief of commercial services for the Boston National Historical Park. “It wasn’t just a job to her. It was something that she poured her heart and soul into.’’
Ms. Donnelly, who explained Boston history to scores of visitors during each of her 20 years as a ranger, died March 14 in a fire at her brother’s home in Miles City, Mont. She was 56 and had worked in Boston for two decades before illness prompted her to retire and return to her Montana hometown in 2008.
Family members said authorities told them the fire’s cause could not be determined. Ms. Donnelly, who was diagnosed a few years ago with Pick’s disease, a form of dementia, had been living with her brother Brian and his family. After escaping the predawn fire with his wife and son, Brian went back inside the house to try to rescue his sister. He also died in the fire.
Ms. Donnelly had moved from Montana to Boston in 1988 for a temporary job as a National Park Service seasonal ranger. She soon became a permanent interpretive ranger, and the stint of a few months turned into 20 years.
Leading 90-minute walks that began at Old South Meeting House, she took tourists along the Freedom Trail to Old North Church in the North End. She gave talks in the Great Hall inside Faneuil Hall, and she dressed in Colonial garb to bring visitors to locations along the Freedom Trail. During peak season, from Memorial Day through mid-October, Ms. Donnelly gave more than 60 tours. She also mentored seasonal rangers and wrote text for exhibits.
Colleagues recalled Ms. Donnelly saying how much she loved her job. “She had a strong sense of herself, and she had a great knack [for] getting along with all types of people,’’ said Mary Francica O’Connor of Hampton Falls, N.H., a friend for more than 20 years. “She had a feminine, sweet exterior with a strong inner core with Western values.’’
Dianne Louise Donnelly was born and grew up in Miles City, and graduated in 1973 from Sacred Heart High School.
She went to Miles Community College and to the University of Montana in Missoula, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history. She later returned to the university, graduating with a master’s degree in political science.
While in Miles City, Ms. Donnelly acted in community theater performances of “Hello, Dolly’’ and “Camelot,’’ and as a teenager had worked at Dairy Queen and A&W.
Despite her upbringing in a comparatively small Montana community, “nothing about her manner suggested a country girl,’’ her friend and former colleague Matthew Greif of North Cambridge wrote in a tribute.
“She always seemed so elegant and refined, almost regal in her bearing,’’ he wrote, adding, “I thought she would have looked right at home in Buckingham Palace, which is why some of us rangers referred to her fondly as Lady Di.’’
Ms. Donnelly often joked to colleagues that the female National Park Service uniform needed “a bit of lace’’ because it was an unflattering replica of the male outfit.
Among the duties she took on was organizing and updating the brochure racks at the visitor center on State Street, a job colleagues said no one wanted because it was no small task to keep everything neatly arranged and well stocked. “She was very precise,’’ Greif said.
O’Connor wrote in a tribute that Ms. Donnelly reminded her “of Diane Chambers from the show ‘Cheers.’ She was a wordsmith, proper, thin, pretty, and her enunciation was exactingly perfect.’’
Ms. Donnelly’s brother Sean, of Great Falls, Mont., said that “one of the greatest things about her personality was she was very focused on etiquette and very thoughtful.’’
Throughout the year she sent cards to family and friends, each with a lengthy handwritten note inside, to commemorate everything from Groundhog Day and St. Patrick’s Day to birthdays and Christmas.
“There was a fundamental decency about Dianne, and there was a warmth about Dianne,’’ Greif said. “She was a good friend. She was one of those people who stayed in touch with people and thought about others.’’
While in Boston, she shared Park Service housing with other employees in the former Marine barracks in the Charlestown Navy Yard, often taking the ferry across the harbor to work.
An avid reader, she also had a fondness for classic films, and so enjoyed the TV show “MASH’’ that she kept a small library of videotaped episodes in her room. Friends found her intriguing and said she was an effective listener. She was “the friend you called when you needed to talk to someone,’’ O’Connor said.
Once when O’Connor was too sick to get out of bed, Ms. Donnelly “walked from the Navy Yard to the convenience store, bought me cold medicine, delivered it to my door, and said, ‘Take two of these and call me in the morning.’ ’’
In addition to her brother Sean, Ms. Donnelly leaves her mother, Louise of Miles City, and three brothers, Kevin and Conan, both of Miles City, and Daren of Missoula. A service has been held in Montana, and her colleagues will announce a Boston gathering.
Ms. Donnelly could be both “very naive and worldly,’’ O’Connor said. “I think that made her easy to know.’’
Greif said he remained “grateful for her friendship,’’ which he missed when she returned to Montana. “Often after work we would stroll across Boston Common together and just talk as we headed for an ice cream,’’ he said. “And somehow just knowing she was there made things better. When I was feeling lonely, she helped me feel less alone.’’