Jean and Bill O'Donnell- 'soul mates' for 50 years
BY FRANCIS COSTELLO
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
To describe Bill O'Donnell as one of a kind is to short-change this estimable man’s life and times.
Honorable and decent to the end, he was deeply proud of the America he loved - and whose uniform he wore - and of the Irish heritage he embraced in all its aspects. A man of many talents, Bill was also modest. An Marine who served during the Korean War, he declined military honors for his funeral, telling his family: “Look, I never got shot at!”
But most of all, Bill O’Donnell loved his wife of 50 years, the former Jean McKenna. He never stopped gushing about “Jeanie” and her talent as a jazz singer. He was a devotee of her performances with the Veritones – the group she made music with - while she was managing to raise their daughter Erin with him and pursuing her career as a teacher. In many ways, it was clear that Jeanie helped to make Bill complete as his partner and soul mate right during their life together.
Bill was also loyal to his friends of many decades, always to the hilt. He also had time for everybody and would simply make them feel good. In this writer’s days many moons ago as a teacher at Boston College High School, my dad would relish the task on Monday mornings of filing my copy in person for the sports column I wrote for the Boston Irish Echo where Bill was the editor. My father knew a hot cup off coffee and a cigarette awaited him, along with a wide ranging chat with Bill, who, whether busy or not, would embark on a freewheeling exchange about the Red Sox and on matters more global.
While Bill cared and wrote about many issues, at his core, he cared even more about people as individuals, never letting politics get in the way of lifelong friendships. All the while, he did not suffer fools gladly. There was the side we saw in the Bill who could be quiet and unassuming but who could also unleash a boisterous laugh often accompanied by a wave of his hand in the air upon hearing good news. He relished other people’s happiness and was never a begrudger. He also enjoyed a glass or two of chardonnay, especially with a meal of lamb that he would expertly barbecue at home.
I was privileged to have known Bill’s loyalty and kindness in many ways. But I also benefited from his commitment to doing a job well. That was the case with his skillful management of several Boston Ireland Ventures World Trade Festivals at the World Trade Center in the 1980s and 1990s during a still very difficult time in the Northern Ireland conflict that he helped coordinate for Mayor Ray Flynn and John Hume. While he worked behind the scenes to help showcase the products made in the West and Northeast of Ireland in the much neglected region between Galway Donegal and Derry to local Bostonians, he also knew the importance of showing the richness of the culture of the people of those areas, and, indeed, of all Irish traditions.
Bill also made a highly positive impact on young Irish immigrants like Ann Mullan from Derry, who came to Boston in 1985. She saw him as bridge between Irish America and the Ireland she came from: “I was truly amazed by his knowledge of Ireland and the complexities of our politics. Bill’s example taught me as an Irish-born person to admire and respect Americans of Irish descent.”
Likewise for Sister Lena Deevy “I will always be grateful to Bill for his steadfast support of the Irish Immigration Center during our early challenging years. He understood the importance of immigration being inclusive of diverse immigrants, including the Irish”
Bill O’Donnell was indeed a catalyst for making good things happen. From his days as youth in Somerville to his onward journey in life, he carried on with an understanding of the Irish proverb “Ar seath a cheile a mhaireann na daoine,” which means that “under the shelter of each other, people survive.” May we keep his spirit with us.
Dr. Francis Costello served as press secretary for Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn and chief of staff to US Rep Joseph P. Kennedy II. He now lives in Belfast where he has long been a university lecturer in history as well as a consultant and author.