There are many beautiful things in the universe, from a sunny spring day to telescopic images of the Milky Way galaxy. What people sometimes fail to realize is that the most remarkable things are the people we see every day.
Michael O’Donnell grew up in a small town called Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, nestled in between Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore. Raised Irish-Catholic and appreciative of his Irish roots, O’Donnell was like many people; he played sports like his “stud athlete of a father” and he went to school. And growing up in an educated family, he left home and went to college at the age of 17.
Over the years, however, O’Donnell has sculpted a life and legacy that remains unmatched by millions of people all over the world. After spending two years in college, O’Donnell spent two years in the Peace Corps in Africa, something most people have never experienced. After returning from what he called a “life-changing experience” in the Peace Corps, O’Donnell finished college in a year and a half. Following undergraduate studies, O’Donnell attended graduate school for two years. Then, something changed.
After doing something different for seven two-year periods, O’Donnell visited Clinch Valley College. While in graduate school in Indiana, having a beer on a Friday afternoon, the academic dean of Clinch Valley College called O’Donnell.
As O’Donnell recounted, the dean said, “I saw your name on a list of Woodrow Wilson fellows. I like the look of that and we’re transitioning from a two-year school to a four-year school . . . I want you to come down and take over a position in French.”
O’Donnell’s reaction to the location of the school? “God, I’ve never heard of it.”
O’Donnell and his mother, who just happened to be visiting him, went to Southwest Virginia to look at the college. After being offered a job on the spot, O’Donnell thought about the offer and a week later said, “I’ll take the job for a year or two and see how it goes”.
“So, I stayed for a year or two and now it’s 51 years later and I am still here.”
For perspective, at the time of O’Donnell’s arrival in August 1968, the only buildings on campus were Crockett Hall, Randolph Hall (now Bowers-Sturgill Hall), Greear Gym and Zehmer Hall.
Additionally, the science building had just been completed and the original library across from Zehmer had just been built and had not yet opened.
O’Donnell’s first office was in the bottom of the original library. He estimates, since then that he has had around 11 different offices.
A jack-of-all-trades, O’Donnell has held many different positions, from professor in several different departments to Director of Admissions for two years, five years as Dean of Students, six years as Athletic Director, ans other posts including Director of International Travel.
As O’Donnell put it, “back in those days, you did what needed to be done”.
During those times, O’Donnell received offers of government positions in Atlanta and Washington D.C. that promised more than twice his salary at Clinch Valley College. Yet, he turned down every single one.
“I get off four months in the summer, I am making enough, I do not need any more money,” O’Donnell said. “I do not know how instinctively and intellectually, I just knew, swear to God, this is where I wanted to be.”
And O’Donnell has stayed at Clinch Valley – now UVa-Wise for a half-century and counting. Perhaps a large reason for O’Donnell’s loyalty to the institution lies in his relationship with the late Joseph Charles “Papa Joe” Smiddy. Papa Joe was more than just a nickname; it is almost symbolic to people like O’Donnell who looked at Mr. Smiddy as a father figure.
“I could cry every time I think about him”, said O’Donnell.
As a mentor, co-worker, colleague and surrogate father, Smiddy played a significant role in O’Donnell’s life.
“When you talk about respect and affection, there’s just no way to put it into words what he meant to me,” O’Donnell said.
However, there may be a way to determine what O’Donnell meant to Mr.Smiddy.
“Imagine, of the tens of thousands of people Mr. Smiddy knew through the college, I am the only person from the college who was asked to speak at his memorial,” O’Donnell said. “If I have ever had a greater honor, I can’t imagine what it was. That’s number one.”
It is fitting that when people come to UVa- Wise today, sometimes the first name they hear associated with the college is Michael “O’D” O’Donnell. When O’Donnell would come to school – not work as he often clarifies – he was a student under Papa Joe Smiddy. Mr. Smiddy was O’Donnell’s mentor and O’Donnell, Mr. Smiddy’s mentee.
What makes people so remarkable? May- be it is the things we say or the things we do. Maybe it is our thoughts and dreams and compassion. Maybe it is our never-ending search for meaning.
We all have different views on what is the meaning of life. To Michael O’Donnell it is students, his wife, his friends and The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. It is the most beautiful thing in the universe, people.