Tom O’Donnell was a singular person in both my professional and personal life. It was not as if I saw him very often, but his appearance as a gadfly in public discourse and as a personal friend was significant. Tom came from an area in Pennsylvania known as the “Coal Country.” For those who are natives of PA, or have lived there most of their lives, that means something. Their long history as the center of the coal mining industry, their growth as a labor movement, and their rawboned politics stamped them forever in the minds of most Pennsylvanians.
You could not say coal country without conjuring up images of the Molly Maguires and the bushy eye browed John L. Lewis. The politics of the area was openly hostile to outsiders and to those who saw them as corrupt politicians. In the eyes of the locals, politicians were there to bring home the bacon for the folks who lived there. Jobs were bought and sold to the satisfaction of those who needed those jobs. For those outside the pale, nepotism was a no no. For coal country folks, it was a way of life.
The demise of most of the coal business to the EPA and the effects of hurricane Agnes in 1972 changed the area. Congressman Dan Flood did much to try and revitalize the area. He was the archtypical coal country politician. As he ended his term in office, his wheelings and dealings caused him to be accused of many shady activities. Tom O’Donnell was to be Dan Flood’s successor. It never happened.
I met Tom, a true child of the coal country when he became the Intermediate Director of Luzerne I.U. 18. His Wilkes Barre connection enabled him to take over a mordant organization that was going nowhere. He brought in some fresh blood and energized the place.
Since there are 29 I.U.s (regional education service agencies), there were 29 I.U. Directors. We met every month in Harrisburg to get our marching orders from the Secretary of Education. I had become an I.U.. Director in 1982, Tom, a few years later. He had been teaching at Kings College. I may be off somewhat about Tom’s career, but I do remember his first meeting. Tom had a great deal of trouble putting up with b.s. He spoke up at the first meeting that he attended. Before that time, I had only felt close to another I.U. Director, Pat Toole. He was someone who was far ahead of the rest of us in programming and technology. The fact that he was in a rural area made me want to see how he did it.
Tom seemed to be right on target about most of the things that I had been challenging. The suburban intermediate units were in full thrall in running everything. Between Tom, Pat and I, that changed over a course of time. It culminated with me being elected President of the intermediate units. I always had the feeling that through some back door shenanigans, by Pat and Tom, I had been crowned. As I look back at those times, I wonder if there was some ethnic combination between two Irishers and a Jew. Since both Tom and Pat are no longer with us, I will not know.
Tom and his wife had four sons. I got to know all of them during our friendship. Kevin worked with his dad at the vocational technical school. Tom left his position at the I.U. to become the Director of the Wilkes Barre school. Kevin ran a program within the school and had been there for quite a while. He was a sharp and outspoken guy. Kevin and I had many discussions about what he wanted to do next. He eventually wound up as director of a vocational technical school in Mifflin County. A superintendent of schools in a school district in the north central part of the state and finally as director of a vocational technical school in the western part of the state and an acting superintendent. Kevin and I still communicate quite often as he heads towards retirement and a new life.
Neil is an attorney. Somehow, he and I have developed a relationship because of his dad’s retirement and the way Tom was treated on his way out of the vocational technical school. Neil had some desire to run for public office. I am not sure if that was good for him or not. He is a wonderful attorney and someone I would want in my corner if I needed a consigliere. I have called on Neil to help with certain problems with school superintendents, even as late as a few months ago. He is a reader of my blogs and always has something positive to say.
Tom Jr. is one of the sons that are furthest from me personally, but a continual reader of my blogs and reactor to what I have to say. He worked in state government and spent the last year of his dad’s life taking care of him. That is a symbol of the way the O’Donnell family operates. When their mom passed away a number of years ago, they surrounded their dad and took care of him.
Brian and I spent lots of time talking about how he should approach running for the school board in Wilkes Barre and what to do when he got on, which he did. He is very child oriented and is a local optometrist. His time on the school board was a good thing for the kids in the school district.
I last saw all four at Tom O’ Donnell’s funeral. There were many dignitaries there, including Senator Bob Casey. Carol and I were at the church and loved the ceremony. It was befitting of Tom.
In the last years of his life, Tom had a job in Harrisburg. He and I, and sometimes Carol, went out for lunch from time to time. His deep baritone voice (he had a gig in N.Y. doing voice overs) still rings in my ears. “What the hell are you supporting that for? As the smartest Jew that I know, you should know better.”