Local historian, author and record runner dies at 77


John M. O'Donnell, long-time Chestnut Hill resident, former executive director of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, prolific author and college professor, died after a sudden and acute illness on July 9. He was 77.

In addition to his many accomplishments, in his retirement years, O’Donnell became a beloved staff member at both the Chestnut Hill Local and Mt. Airy Learning Tree.

Leisha Shaffer, marketing and circulation manager of the Local, said the paper was lucky to have O’Donnell, who took the job of classified advertising specialist.

“John always kept you on your toes with his quick wit and wicked sense of humor,” said Shaffer.  “In his almost two years here, he proved to be a master of detail and was extremely helpful.” 

The Local's publisher, John Derr, said he was particularly impressed by O’Donnell’s breadth of knowledge – and his vocabulary.

“Often on Friday mornings, we were the first ones in the office, and we would talk about books, politics, or current events. John was erudite and articulate … He was one-of-a-kind, and that's about the highest compliment with which anyone can hope to leave this world."

John, whose father was an accountant for Dupont, grew up in a lower-middle-class rowhouse neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware, and went to a strict Catholic school.

In an interview with the Local about one of his many books, John described it this way: “In my neighborhood, a mixed marriage was one between an Irish Catholic and an Italian Catholic.”

O'Donnell earned a BA from the University of Delaware, where he was also captain of the track team. He set the school record by running a 4-minute, 11-second mile, which was not broken until 50 years later. His final race for the invitational mile at the Armed Forces Championships in 1967 was even faster – 4 minutes and 9 seconds.

After graduation, O’Donnell trained at the Defense Foreign Language Program prior to serving as a Russian interpreter. During the Vietnam War, he was attached to the U.S. Naval Security Group as a Russian “communications technician” because of his knowledge of the Russian language.

He was sent to Kami Seya, Japan, south of Tokyo, in a refitted WWII Japanese underground torpedo factory (to protect it from U.S. bombing runs). 

Returning stateside, O’Donnell obtained his master’s degree, at the University of Delaware, followed by a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania. His doctoral thesis, “The Origins of Behaviorism: American Psychology, 1870-1920,” was turned into a book published by New York University Press. He later taught history at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Delaware, SUNY/Buffalo, Rutgers University, and the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

In 1986, the College of Physicians hired O'Donnell (who had been serving as the University of Delaware's director of alumni relations) to design and direct events surrounding the 200th anniversary of its founding. He soon attracted high-profile speakers, including then-President Ronald Reagan, who delivered the college’s bicentennial address, and the prominent neuropsychiatrist/author, Oliver Sacks.

“Later, in 1995,” he told the Local in an interview two years ago, "we co-hosted First Lady Hillary Clinton and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (a fellow of the college) during their national healthcare plan parade. I got to spend a whole morning with Hillary Clinton. She was fun to talk to."

O’Donnell successfully steered the largest capital campaign in the institution’s history. As chief spokesperson for the college, he also enhanced its image abroad, addressing the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh on aspects of their respective histories.

Dedicated to civic affairs, O'Donnell served as director of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Greater Philadelphia Health Care Congress, the Independence Hall Preservation Fund, First Executive Bank, Operation Smile International and several other Pennsylvania organizations.

In 1998, O'Donnell started the Contemporary History Company, which was hired by large non-profit institutions to write books about their histories. He authored three histories of local institutions: “Promise” (about the Connelly Foundation); “Commissioned to Serve” (Hospitals and Higher Education Authority of Philadelphia); and “Coriell” (about the Coriell Institute for Medical Research).

He also wrote a thriller of a historical novel, “Revenge at Elsinore,” which presents an alternative history that plausibly connects Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, to the international strife that swirled around Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Reviewers called the novel “stunning,” “startling” and “richly rendered.”

John was a voracious reader, a student of Latin and conversant in Japanese, as well as being a competitive tennis player and dedicated cyclist. He was also a deep thinker, and a conscientious naturalist who explored the trails and streams in Philadelphia’s environs with his trusty Goldendoodle, Gigi.

John is survived by his beloved wife, Anne Dougherty O’Donnell, and his cousin, Mary Catharine Kelley. John and Anne were inseparable. His many fierce friends will also miss him deeply.

According to Anne, “John stole my heart the day I met him. He was living in my childhood house on Benezet Street. He asked if I believed in fate. I said, 'Maybe coincidence,' but I guess he was right.”

John O'Donnell himself and friends Scott Eberle and Richard Panadero contributed to this article. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com