James J. O'Donnell, state transportation secretary

James Joseph O'Donnell, a former Maryland transportation secretary and World War II lieutenant commander, died of respiratory failure Tuesday at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. The former Cedarcroft resident was 95.

"Jim got things done in a quiet way. He was a big help for me and was a good public servant," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who lives in Denton. "He was very competent and was at all times a real gentleman."

Born in Baltimore and raised on Randall Street in South Baltimore, he attended the Cathedral School and was a 1936 graduate of Loyola High School. After attending Loyola College, he earned a bachelor's degree from the Naval Academy.

During World War II, he was chief engineer aboard the USS Chicago, a heavy cruiser, and served in the Atlantic and Pacific. He left the service as a lieutenant commander.

After working as a design director at the old Western Electric Co.'s Point Breeze Works in Southeast Baltimore, he joined state government and went on to become the director of the Department of Public Improvements.

In 1951, he earned a degree at the University of Maryland School of Law and was admitted to the Maryland Bar.

Gov. J. Millard Tawes named Mr. O'Donnell director of state planning, a post he held until 1968. He was chairman of the Baltimore Regional Planning Council.

He then served as a vice president at J. Prentiss Browne, architects and planners, before returning to state service in 1972 as deputy secretary of transportation. He was also acting state highway administrator from 1972 to 1973.

Governor Hughes named him secretary of transportation in 1979. He held the post until late 1981.

Mr. O'Donnell helped plan the Baltimore Metro and was involved with the creation of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. He also served on environmental committees for the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers.

During his years in state government, Mr. O'Donnell served on the Air Transportation Commission, a Commission for Assateague Island, a planning committee of Maryland Forest and Parks, an Improvements Commission for BWI Airport, a Commission on Aid for the Walters Art Museum and the Maryland Scenic Beauty Commission.

He was a past president of the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers. He was also a former board member of the Engineering Society of Baltimore.

Family members said Mr. O'Donnell enjoyed travel. He also enjoyed dining at Haussner's, the Engineers' Club, Marconi's and the Golden Arm.

"He was very proud of his family and was unquestionably its patriarch. He loved being around people. And while he wasn't a joke teller, he could tell an Irish-themed story," said a son, Timothy Frederick O'Donnell of Suwanee, Ga. "He was a compassionate and caring person who had a soft spot for those less fortunate. He was always supportive of organizations such as Little Sisters of the Poor and Our Daily Bread. He was also someone who was very open-minded. When I was a teenager, I recall him commenting, 'It takes all types of people to make the world go around.'"

He played golf several times a week and had memberships at the Country Club of Maryland and Hunt Valley Country Club.

After living in Cedarcroft from 1955 to 2005, he moved to Mercy Ridge.

He was a former member of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen parish.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Monday at Stella Maris Chapel, 2300 Dulaney Valley Road, Timonium.

In addition to his son, survivors include another son, James Joseph O'Donnell Jr. of Jacksonville, Fla.; a daughter, Mary Patricia O'Donnell Howard of Timonium; seven grandchildren; and three great-granddaughters. His wife of 65 years, the former Rosemary Ann Frederick, died in 2013.


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