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Educator nurtured Damien School

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Brother Greg O’Donnell, former president and chief executive officer of Damien Memorial School, was a strong advocate for the underdog, said longtime friend Brother Patrick Dunne.

"If it meant getting his hands dirty and doing the grunt work, writing letters … He was never bashful in contacting people and getting things done for the healthy cause of the underdog," said Dunne, president of Palma High School in Salinas, Calif.

O’Donnell, an educator of more than 50 years, died yesterday at Hawaii Medical Center in Liliha. He was 71.

O’Donnell was the longest-serving head of Damien, a Catholic boys school in Kalihi founded in 1962.

A Chicago native, O’Donnell entered the Congregation of Christian Brothers at age 17. He served as principal of O’Dea High School in Seattle and as fundraising director for the Christian Brothers retirement fund in Chicago before coming to Hawaii in 1997 to become principal at Damien.

When he arrived at Damien, the school was in financial turmoil. Under his leadership the school increased enrollment, added a middle school and enlarged its campus by 10 percent.

In 2000 he became Damien’s chief executive officer and president until he retired in June 2007.

"He was certainly passionate of education. He wanted the school he was connected with to be in the forefront of curriculum and programs," said Brother Peter Zawot, principal of Damien Memorial School. "When he believed in something, he would get the job done."

Dunne, also a Christian Brother, described O’Donnell as an excellent teacher with a presence bigger than life.

In 2001, O’Donnell forfeited a football game against Saint Louis School. His decision sparked outrage among a group of parents, but O’Donnell stuck to his decision, saying it was for the betterment of the Damien team to not risk injuries by competing against a team with twice as many players.

That stance left an impression on Keith Amemiya, then executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association. In 2003 the association established a Division II. "It was a situation like that involving the Damien football team that motivated me to want to create a second division for all of our sports," said Amemiya.

Brent Limos, director of admissions at Damien Memorial School, said O’Donnell’s decision to forfeit the game forced the Interscholastic League of Honolulu and the Oahu Interscholastic Association to rethink the whole system of classification. "There was no classification before that," said Limos.

"He was fearless. If he felt that he needed to take action to better the school, he would go and do it even if it meant facing opposition from a lot of people. He was a very firm man and strong-willed. A lot of leaders are that way," he said.

A few months after he retired from Damien, O’Donnell volunteered to teach math twice a week to inmates at Waiawa Correctional Facility. Volunteering at the facility was his way of honor the legacy of his father, Michael O’Donnell, a Chicago policeman who helped improve the lives of inmates.

After his father arrested criminals, he would visit them in prison and help them find jobs when they were released. His mother, Mae, a homemaker, drove the wives of inmates to Pontiac Correctional Center so they could visit their husbands, according to a November 2008 story in The Honolulu Advertiser. Of the inmates, O’Donnell recalled his father saying, "They’re not bad people. They are people who made mistakes."

During retirement, O’Donnell also volunteered as a docent at the Pacific Aviation Museum.

Longtime friend Sandra Theunick, head of school of St. Andrew’s Priory, said whether it was serving as school president or raising money for the Christian Brothers, O’Donnell would do it right and with integrity. "He really gave it his all. He stood up for the right things," she said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

 

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