“That's the most important thing I do,” he said in a Phillips Exeter Academy alumni profile several years ago. “This is Joey's legacy.”
Mr. O'Donnell, whose vast assets included stadium interests, a venture capital firm, a marketing agency and a ski resort, was 79 when he died of cancer Sunday at his home in Boston.
His fundraising drives scientific advances and “led to breakthrough treatments that are changing the lives of tens of thousands of people with cystic fibrosis around the world today,” the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation said. said Dr Michael Boyle, chief executive of “Without Joe, these innovative medicines would not exist.”
Mr. O'Donnell first built his business empire with the Boston Culinary Group, which provides concessions to stadiums and other venues across the country, but has since branched out into numerous other businesses. But when questioned, he often smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said he sold popcorn and candy.
When Boston Magazine named O'Donnell at the top of its 2006 list of “100 People Who Run This Town,'' a friend joked that he owned 4 percent of everything. He said that there is.
High on his list of other full and partial ownership interests were private equity groups Belmont Capital, Allied Global Marketing, and Suffolk Downs Racetrack.
“He could digest the most complex spreadsheets in minutes,” said Mike Sheehan, a friend and former Globe CEO who was a partner in some of Mr. O'Donnell's businesses. “But his real talent was his x-ray vision. He could see through numbers to people behind him. And if he sensed the slightest flaw in character, there was no deal.” ”
Mr. O'Donnell was an informal advisor to mayors, governors, and former President George W. Bush, a friend from their days at Harvard Business School.
“Joe O'Donnell was a great man and a loyal friend. He had a big heart and a good laugh,” Bush said in an email. “His love for Boston was only overshadowed by his love for his family and friends.”
Mr. O'Donnell, who rose to success from a modest childhood, was born in Everett, the son of a police officer and a school administrator. Everett still loomed large in his thoughts when he spent most of his time in boardrooms and boardrooms. .
“In Everett, you could wear a blindfold and you could smell your way home,” he warmly recalled in a 2003 Globe Theater interview. “I love that city.”
By that year, Mr. O'Donnell had led another group of partners in an unsuccessful attempt to buy the New England Patriots in the late 1980s, and then the Red Sox before the team was sold to a group led by its chief owner. Acquired. John Henry is also the owner of the Globe newspaper.
“Joe had tremendous charisma,” said Steve Karp, a prominent real estate developer and Mr. O'Donnell's key partner in the Red Sox bid. “He could walk into a room not knowing anyone and leave the room with half the people thinking he was their best friend.”
Some of the new friends would later stand opposite Mr. O'Donnell in meetings and painstakingly negotiate deals.
But in the end, his reputation rested largely on his “unpretentious demeanor” and endless generosity, Karp said, adding that behind the scenes O'Donnell was “always doing something for someone.” Ta.
“He didn't believe in emails or text messages,” Karp said. “He believed in picking up the phone and making calls. He was interested in how your family was doing, which made him a unique person. He believed in just business situations. I wanted to know more about you personally.”
And when O'Donnell meets people who, like him, have lost loved ones, he hands them a copy of his favorite book on grief, The Bereaved Parent, along with an offer for a hug and just to listen. .
“He was a tough guy in business, we all know that. But there was an incredibly human, soft, caring and empathetic side to Joe.” said Lawrence Bacow, a former Harvard University president who served with him on the Harvard Corporation, Harvard University's top executive committee. “He didn't know what it was like to have a friend until he made Joe O'Donnell his friend.”
Joseph James O'Donnell was born April 19, 1944, and grew up in Everett, the son of Teresa Rose Cavich O'Donnell and Joseph I. O'Donnell.
Mr. O'Donnell, who graduated with honors from Malden Catholic High School, was an important recipient of his philanthropy and captain of the football and baseball teams. He then attended Phillips Academy where he spent graduate school at Exeter Academy and won a scholarship to Harvard University, where he also played football and baseball.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, who attended Malden Catholic University two years behind Mr. O'Donnell, said, “He owes his great success not to his blue-collar roots, but to his blue-collar roots.'' “I believed it was a huge success.” “That’s what made him the quintessential figure that connected all the different neighborhoods of Boston.”
Mr. O'Donnell graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor's degree and received a master's degree from Harvard Business School, where he served as associate dean. In the mid-1970s, he began managing what became his Boston Culinary Group, but he sold that group a dozen years ago.
In addition to serving on the Harvard University Board of Directors, he served on the University's Board of Supervisors and on the board of the Harvard Alumni Association. A Harvard Medal recipient, he was “one of Harvard's most dedicated and inspirational alumni leaders,” former Harvard University President Drew Faust once told the Harvard Gazette.
In 2012, Mr. O'Donnell and his wife, Kathy, donated $30 million to Harvard University in recognition of their good fortune to attend as scholars. O'Donnell, a six-time varsity letter winner and captain of the Harvard baseball team as a senior, donated $2.5 million to the baseball program. The team's stadium was named after him.
He married Katherine Kelliher in 1970 and worked for Action for Boston Community Development until the birth of their son, Joey. Shortly after, Joey was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
“He never asked us if he was going to die,” O'Donnell said shortly after his son died in 1986.
“That was the beauty of him,” he told the Globe. “He kept telling us not to worry. The doctors would come up with a treatment. That he was just a normal kid and we should treat him as such. of.”
During their long and widely admired marriage, the O'Donnells became widely involved in fundraising for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and have two daughters born after Joey's death, Kate O'Donnell of Boston, who lives in Boston. Raised Casey Buckley. The Brookline portion of Chestnut Hill.
“My parents had a great marriage. I'm always in awe of their relationship,” Kate said. “She always made him think she was right, and she was always in charge behind the scenes. They had great respect for each other.”
Services for Mr. O'Donnell are expected to be announced. O'Donnell spent as much time as possible with his granddaughter Blair and grandson JD in recent years. They both called Mr. O'Donnell “Go-Go,” a nickname that evolved from how they called their granddaughters. My name is Jojo.
“His entire life was a human being,” Casey said. “People mean family, friends, and community, and he created community wherever he went. No matter what group he was in, he made it better, made it fun, and made it successful.” Ta.”
Mr. O'Donnell began a successful career as an entrepreneur in the 1970s, in part helping pay for Joey's medical bills when he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as an infant.
During Joey's 12 years, “he taught me a lot,” O'Donnell told the Globe in 1986. “I think he taught everyone who knew Joey a lot.”
And just days before Joey died, “all of a sudden he told me he knew what heaven was,” O'Donnell said. “He said heaven is different, and a long time here is like a blink of an eye in heaven.”
Brian Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.