Campus & Community

A life that was a ‘monument for what one person can do to serve others’

Joe O'Donnell.

File photo by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

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Friends, colleagues honor Joe O’Donnell, self-made business success who kept focus on people at center of endeavors, was fiercely loyal to family, wide circle of others — and Harvard

Shortly after becoming Harvard president in 2007, Drew Faust caught a ride into Boston with Joe O’Donnell. That morning the two were off to have breakfast with O’Donnell’s friend Tom Menino, whose relationship with the University had hit some bumps during his long tenure as Boston’s mayor.

Along the way, O’Donnell, a successful businessman and by then a past member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, talked Faust through the major policy sticking points between the University and the city and offered thoughts on how to get off on the right foot with Menino.

Then, he added a final admonition: Don’t take the last breakfast sausage.

Faust was among the friends and colleagues who shared memories of O’Donnell, who died Jan. 7 from cancer at age 79. They described a man whose business acumen was matched by his understanding of and faith in people — in matters large and small — and his fierce commitment to those around him and to his alma mater.

“For that breakfast, and on every level, he tried to put me on the road to success,” Faust said this week. “He was such a wise person who understood how human beings work and how institutions work. He was invaluable and had an enormous, enormous heart.”

“I think he was the most loyal alum I met during my time as president. He always answered the call when asked to do something for his alma mater.”

Larry Bacow, former president

Interim President Alan Garber and Corporation Senior Fellow Penny Pritzker said O’Donnell’s passing was a profound loss for the Harvard community. Garber, who was beginning his term as Harvard’s provost when he met O’Donnell, said O’Donnell stood apart for his generosity and appreciation of Harvard’s role in his life.

“Joe O’Donnell and I became friends almost from the moment we first met, when he had just joined the Corporation and I was about to become provost,” Garber said. “He was incredibly generous in all of the ways in which a person can be generous, and he was extraordinarily grateful for all of the opportunities that arose over his lifetime, many of them connected in some way to Harvard or its people. The University has lost a loyal champion and a true friend.”

Pritzker joined the Board of Overseers after O’Donnell and the Corporation as he was departing. She reflected on O’Donnell’s importance as a member of  Harvard’s governing boards and alumni community, saying his friendship and willingness to share his insights helped her and others who care about the institution.

“Joe O’Donnell led a significant life of purpose and impact. He welcomed me to the Board of Overseers with his usual optimistic exuberance and characteristic warmth,” Pritzker said. “We shared a mutual love of Harvard and for the incredible people that make up our wonderful community. I will be forever grateful for his friendship and mentorship as he encouraged me to get involved and stay involved to help this institution that we all adore. His loss leaves a huge hole in my heart.”

O’Donnell, who is survived by wife, Katherine, and daughters Kate O’Donnell ’09, M.B.A. ’16, and Casey O’Donnell Buckley ’11, was always proud of his background as the son of an Everett, Massachusetts, police officer and a homemaker who had been valedictorian of her high school.

Though friends described O’Donnell as physically imposing — he earned six Harvard athletic letters playing football and baseball — they also said he had a heart of gold. Former Harvard Senior Fellow Bill Lee, who served with O’Donnell on the Corporation and the Board of Overseers, relayed a story by a backup lineman who had played with O’Donnell. Though O’Donnell was on the field regularly, he also tracked how often teammates played and urged the coach to give them enough time to earn a letter themselves.

“He was truly one of a kind,” Lee said. “He was a person who always had your back and always backed up everyone around him. If Joe promised you something, he would make sure that it would come true. He was that rare person today that, if he looked you in the eye and shook your hand, you knew you had a commitment.”

“He was such a wise person who understood how human beings work and how institutions work.”

Drew Faust, former president

O’Donnell graduated from Malden Catholic High School, spending a year at Phillips Exeter Academy before heading to Harvard College after receiving an aid offer. Friends and Harvard colleagues say O’Donnell never forgot his own roots and worked to open the institution widely to students from similar economic backgrounds.

“His leadership of our class made an enormous difference to Harvard, especially with financial aid and athletics,” said Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons, who was raised in the blue-collar Boston suburb of Weymouth and became friends with O’Donnell while both were undergraduates. “He never forgot his first-generation college roots, and his hard work and generosity enabled countless students to come to Harvard despite limited family resources.”

O’Donnell described his time at Harvard as life-changing, saying in 2018 that he believed he would have been happy regardless of whether he went to Harvard, “but my life would have been diminished, and the boundaries would have been much more restricted. I do what I do because of Harvard. That’s why I keep supporting it.”

“Joe bled Crimson. He loved Harvard and credited it with shaping his life,” said former Harvard President Larry Bacow. “I think he was the most loyal alum I met during my time as president. He always answered the call when asked to do something for his alma mater. It seemed like he knew everyone who ever graduated from Harvard and, if they lived in Massachusetts, everyone who did not.”

Lee said he first met O’Donnell when both were elected as Overseers. They bonded over the fact that neither came from a privileged background — Lee’s parents arrived as immigrants from China with $25 in their pockets.

“We walked in together and wondered whether we really belonged,” Lee said. “That brought us together, and we ended up spending lots and lots of time together.”

O’Donnell became a key member of the Corporation after his appointment in 2011, Lee said. Faust, who led the Corporation while president, agreed, praising O’Donnell’s knack for cutting to the core of a complex issue and keeping the focus on what was most important.

“He had enormous common sense. We’d be flailing around on a question, and he would just cut through and say, ‘This is what it looks like to me,’” Faust said. “He always led with values. What’s the human element here? What’s the right thing to do? How do we make better lives possible for the people around us, whether through ending cystic fibrosis or opening up the University or educating people to be able to achieve remarkable things. He kept you with your eye on the North Star and an understanding what it was that mattered.”

O’Donnell also contributed through other roles at Harvard, serving as a director of the Harvard Alumni Association, on the Allston Work Team and the Harvard College Fund Executive Committee. He received numerous awards over the years, including the Harvard Medal in 2020 from the Harvard Alumni Association for “extraordinary service to the University.”

O’Donnell and his wife were generous with their philanthropy as well as their time, donating $30 million to the University in 2012 and providing additional financial support to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard Medical School, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Kennedy School, and the American Repertory Theater.

A captain of the baseball team in his senior year, he donated $2.5 million in 1995 to endow the baseball coach’s position. Today, Harvard’s baseball field bears O’Donnell’s name.

Though his work on behalf of Harvard was important to O’Donnell, he and Katherine made the fight against cystic fibrosis the major cause in their lives after their 12-year-old son, Joey, died of the condition in 1986.

In the ensuing decades, they established The Joey Fund to benefit cystic fibrosis research and became active fundraisers for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, raising more than $500 million. That financial support has aided the development of treatments for the genetic condition, which have dramatically improved the lives of patients who suffer from damage done to the lungs, pancreas, and other organs by the disease.

The experience also proved a source of compassion and understanding for those experiencing similar losses. Bacow said that when he and Adele lost their 13-week-old granddaughter, Emily, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 2014, O’Donnell reached out to help.

“Joe had the world’s biggest heart. He embraced us in ways that only someone who had suffered the loss of a child could do,” Bacow said. “If the word ‘mensch’ did not exist, it would have to be created to describe him.”

O’Donnell graduated from Harvard College in 1967 with a degree in government. He then crossed the Charles River to Harvard Business School, an experience he described in a 2001 interview as transformative, not because he learned facts and figures, but rather because it provided him a framework to analyze business problems and reach decisions.

“He was incredibly generous in all of the ways in which a person can be generous, and he was extraordinarily grateful for all of the opportunities that arose over his lifetime, many of them connected in some way to Harvard or its people.”

Alan Garber, interim president

“I wasn’t a Baker scholar or the brightest guy in my section, that’s for sure. But I picked up the thinking process and, in a very pedestrian way, I’ve learned to analyze things that way. Today, it’s how I decide whether or not I want to go into a particular business,” O’Donnell said in an interview for the “HBS Entrepreneurs Oral History Collection.”

While in graduate school, O’Donnell started a business called Student Housing Services to provide housing for HBS students — particularly minority students — who were having a hard time finding a place to live in 1960s Boston.

After graduation, while mulling over a generous job offer from businessman and one-time U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot, O’Donnell realized that he didn’t want to work in a large corporation, where his choices would be constrained. So he turned Perot down and began working at HBS as associate dean of students. Among other tasks, he brought his Student Housing Services, by then a successful enterprise, under the University’s administration.

When O’Donnell left HBS, he began working at a small concessions company that he wound up buying and building into the Boston Culinary Group, one of the nation’s largest providers of food services to sporting and entertainment venues, such as sports stadiums, ski areas, amusement parks, and convention centers. Those early years were difficult, he told HBS in 2001, as he and Katherine were faced with the uncertainties of growing a business as they struggled to manage Joey’s condition.

“I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any banking relationships, and I didn’t have any customers, but I knew that if I put in enough effort, I could make it work,” O’Donnell said. “My wife and I used to weep about our son, the risks of starting a business, the craziness of going into this dark hole when I had all of these responsibilities. But I think that’s just part of the entrepreneurial spirit — I don’t think you have a choice. It was something I just had to do.”

In that oral history interview, O’Donnell also looked back at his success and listed what he saw as the three factors that were key to growing his businesses. One was the financial strength to provide loans to customers, particularly those with uncertain cash flow due to the seasonality of the business. Another was the ability to achieve the core mission and provide food service competently. Perhaps most important was the people he employed, whom he described as “my most valuable resource.”

Over the course of his career, O’Donnell always looked for new opportunities, but remained focused on the people behind the businesses, buying equity in companies whose owners he thought had the chops to succeed but were short on capital. He would go on to own or have stakes in an array of companies, including Allied Global Marketing, private equity firm Belmont Capital, which he founded, and Centerplate, Inc., which he chaired after it acquired Boston Culinary Group in 2010.

“He was blessed with an amazing family, achieved at the highest level in business, and, along with his wife, Kathy, raised many millions of dollars for cystic fibrosis in honor of his son, Joey,” Fitzsimmons said. “His life is a monument for what one person can do to serve others.”

A memorial service is planned for Friday at Memorial Church.