Thomas O'Donnell

The Baltimore Sun

Thomas J. O'Donnell Sr., a former reporter for The Sun who later was a longtime aide to Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., died Tuesday of heart failure at Easton Memorial Hospital. He was 95 and a resident of Wittman in Talbot County.

Mr. O'Donnell was born in South Baltimore and moved with his family to Hampden in 1913. He attended St. Thomas parochial school and City College.

"He really had little formal education and was largely self-taught. After his father's death, he left school to help support his family during the Depression," said a son, Frank J. O'Donnell of Kensington.

He worked as a janitor in a Hampden jewelry store and as a soda jerk in a drugstore. He caddied at the Baltimore Country Club in Roland Park and lied about his age in order to get a clerk's job at Maryland Casualty Co.

In his 2003 memoir, the self-published 91 Years Down the Road, Mr. O'Donnell wrote of his deep affection for the Enoch Pratt Free Library branch on Falls Road near his boyhood home.

"From the time I was 7 and until I was grown, I spent many a winter afternoon or evening in that library reading any and everything that came to hand," he wrote.

In 1933, Mr. O'Donnell began his newspaper career as an $18-a-week reporter assigned to the police districts. He later worked as a general assignment and court reporter before being promoted to assistant city editor.

During the early 1940s, he was assigned to the newspaper's Washington bureau, and during 1944, covered the vice presidential campaign of Republican John W. Bricker, the running mate of New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.

In early 1945, Mr. O'Donnell requested a change and was sent to the Pacific as a war correspondent. He was on the island of Tinian when the atomic bomb was flown from the U.S. air base there and dropped on Hiroshima, and he was with the Marines when they landed as the first U.S. troops in Japan on Aug. 30, 1945.

On Sept. 2, 1945, Mr. O'Donnell was aboard the battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay, with fellow Sunpapers war correspondents Philip Potter and Robert B. Cochrane to report on the Japanese surrender.

"General MacArthur, who had paused on the landing on the deck above to light a cigarette, glanced down, blew out a cloud of smoke and stepped into his cabin. At that moment, the swarms of carrier planes swept overhead," Mr. O'Donnell wrote of the conclusion of the 22-minute ceremony.

"He had a great reputation as a war correspondent," said Holbrook Bradley. Bradley, a former Sun reporter and retired State Department official who is the newspaper's last surviving World War II correspondent, spoke yesterday from his home in San Diego. "He was a great colleague to be working with and know."

After the war, Mr. O'Donnell returned to The Sun, but by 1949 had become "increasingly bored with newspaper work," he wrote in his book. "Then, out of the blue, there occurred an incident that again completely changed my life."

Walking past City Hall, Mr. O'Donnell was spotted by Mayor D'Alesandro and City Comptroller Neil McCardell, who invited him to lunch at "No. 10 Downing Street," as Bickford's restaurant on nearby Calvert Street was known.

While Mr. McCardell went from table to table greeting politicians, the mayor told Mr. O'Donnell that he was looking for someone to write speeches and handle publicity. Mr. O'Donnell suggested himself for the job, agreed on a salary, and they shook hands.

"The whole thing was done by the time McCardell got back to the table," Mr. O'Donnell wrote. He became the mayor's press secretary and the city's public relations director from 1949 to 1959.

An avid golfer and tennis player, it was while serving as chairman of the Eastern Open Golf Tournament from 1950 to 1958 that Mr. O'Donnell played a pivotal role in having the Professional Golf Association's 1950 tournament played at Mount Pleasant golf course.

"He was an aggressive reporter and public relations man for my father. He knew Baltimore inside and out. Every nook and cranny," former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III said yesterday. "He knew all the players and the issues, as well as all of those who covered the Hall."

After the elder Mayor D'Alesandro ran unsuccessfully in 1958 for the U.S. Senate against Republican J. Glenn Beall, Mr. O'Donnell worked in public relations and advertising.

He joined his former boss in Washington when the elder D'Alesandro was appointed to the Federal Renegotiation Board by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. After Mr. D'Alesandro stepped down in 1969, Mr. O'Donnell continued with the agency as an analyst until retiring in 1978.

Mr. O'Donnell lived for many years on Radnor Road in Towson before moving to Wittman in 1997 -- the year his wife of 58 years, the former Florence Frances Reich, died.

"His life was a real rags-to-riches story, and he did what he wanted and had a good time doing it," Mr. O'Donnell's son said.

At Mr. O'Donnell's request, no funeral service will be held.

Also surviving are another son, Thomas J. O'Donnell Jr. of Wittman; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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