In the summer of 1978, 12-year-old Mike O'Donnell decided he wanted to play youth baseball in Howard County. His older brother was already playing, so their father, Norbert, made the quick trip from his home in Ellicott City to check out the fields where his sons would play at Kiwanis-Wallas Park.
"My husband went up there and looked around," said Betsy, Norbert O'Donnell's widow. "He said, 'This is disgusting. Why isn't the grass cut?'"
Teenagers were supposed to be taking care of the fields, according to Betsy O'Donnell.
Because her husband was not pleased with the upkeep of the fields he decided to get involved since he would have two boys in the Howard County Youth Program. Norbert O'Donnell began working the fields at Kiwanis-Wallas Park that summer and continued until his death in 1996 at the age of 62. He sometimes spent as many as 50 hours a week with the upkeep and enlisted family members to help out.
O'Donnell, who was working on the fields the day before he passed away, has been named to the Howard County Community Sports Hall of Fame for his devotion to the fields where thousands of local youth got their start in organized sports. He is the first groundskeeper to be inducted.
"He was a hard-working guy that was pretty much always there, the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night," said Bill Mellendick, a former HCYP baseball commissioner.
Mellendick got involved in Howard County youth sports in the early 1980s and got to know O'Donnell quickly. He said if there was a big baseball tournament at the park, O'Donnell would put in extra hours working on the fields.
"He had one of those voices that carried forever," recalls Mellendick. Sometimes a young athlete would get scared when they heard that booming voice, and if that was the case O'Donnell would make amends by stopping what he was doing to calm the youngster.
"He took a lot of pride in how (the fields) looked," Mellendick said of O'Donnell, who worked for General Motors for several years. "He did a lot of volunteer work in the beginning and HCYP found out the job was too big. They offered him a small stipend as a thank you. Without him it would have been impossible (to maintain the fields). You would see him out on the tractor and raking the fields."
That tractor was a Kubota, which was owned by the family but "lived at Wallas Park," Betsy O'Donnell says. "It stayed at the park. It was at our house in the winter and helped get people out of their driveways when it snowed."
His widow said O'Donnell's focus on taking care of fields began when he was a student at Clarksville High School. He grew up on a farm in western Howard County and, during the 1950-51 academic year, the school began a football program. "The players had to work on their own fields," she said.
Betsy O'Donnell said that when his family made trips to watch the Orioles, he would eventually end up talking to groundskeepers about their craft. "Norbert researched to find the right kind of mix for the infields, talked to professional groundskeepers (Orioles) for helpful hints, traveled to Pennsylvania to find the mix," according to O'Donnell's Hall of Fame nomination form.
Soon after his death, the Department of Recreation and Parks approved a request from HCYP to rename the roadway that goes through the main part of Kiwanis-Wallas Park in his honor, according to a story in the Howard County Times in 1996.
The Maryland District 5 Babe Ruth tournament was dedicated in 1984 to O'Donnell, and the HCYP baseball season was dedicated to him as well in 1996, shortly after his death.
O'Donnell's three sons and daughter all played youth sports in Howard County. His son, Mike, was a standout prep pitcher at Howard and played in college at what is now Salisbury University. But it was his interest in playing at the age of 12 that helped his father become devoted to the upkeep of local fields.
Hall of Fame member George Bickerton met O'Donnell in the mid-1980s when his son played HCYP baseball.
"The thing that really impressed me about Norbert was his attention to detail and his love of the kids," Bickerton said. "He came across as gruff at first. But the fields and the kids were his babies. Everyone who walked across the fields when it rained had the wrath of Norbert to deal with. He was one of a kind."