Fanfare for an uncommon man

The night my Pop died, I knew it would be his last. I’d been working late, writing something for a client, when it suddenly hit me. I clocked out and started writing his eulogy instead. For the next several hours I wrote, revised, and rewrote, then went to bed, exhausted. I woke at 4:50 a.m. to a phone call confirming what I already knew.

I wasn’t “taken over,” a description I’ve heard others use for similar experiences. But I will say that the theme and the life events I described came to me easily — I’ll call it divine inspiration, or some sort of guidance. This fact became more clear to me when a cousin told me she had the same feeling while she penned a tribute to him a few days after his death — and when she realized that what she wrote mirrored much of what I went on to say in my eulogy.

What follows is what I’ll call Fanfare for an Uncommon Man — with apologies to composer Aaron Copeland (and Emerson, Lake and Palmer). I’ve changed a few of the words — I’m sure you can figure out which ones they are — because the language my Pop would have used isn’t exactly fit for the inside of a church.

Fanfare for an Uncommon Man

My father was a hard worker. He was also a mechanical genius.

Some people know a little about everything — they’re a “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

That was not my father.

My father was a master of all trades.

Carpenter. Electrician. Gas and diesel mechanic. Surveyor. Plumber. Mason. Fabricator. Welder. Farmer. Roofer. Machinist. Engineer. Architect …

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Over the course of his life, the man built more things, from the ground up, then it’s possible to catalog. Bulldozers. Tractors. Trucks. Cars. Houses. Barns. Farm equipment — he once built a gravity-fed seeder, for our corn and oats, out of salvaged parts that included an old bucksaw blade; a water tank, a driveshaft to transfer power from the PTO, and a gear unit that he modified to run the saw blade. Onto the blade, he’d welded metal stock to catch and carry the seed — fed through an adjustable delivery system. He completed it with a three-point hitch setup to attach to our Farmall tractors.

vintage bucksaw — my father used a similar blade to make a seeder for our crops. It wasn't exactly safe, but it worked!
My Pop used a blade just like this one when he made a seeder for our crops. It wasn’t exactly safe — especially for the person (me) who had to stand next to it, on a moving tractor, and adjust the rate the seed fell — but it worked!

And that was one of his simple projects (although not one of his safest — have you ever stood next to a spinning bucksaw blade to adjust a seed feeder?)

He custom-designed and helped build entire machines for one of the knitwear companies he worked at, saving them the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would have cost to purchase those machines new.

He built two of the houses that he and my mother have lived in over their 57 years of marriage. And when I say built, I mean he did everything but pour the foundation (he dug them out, though).

His nephew, my cousin Rick, once said, “When your dad sees a toaster, he doesn’t see what everyone else sees. He sees the wiring schematic, the solenoid, the thermostat, the switch, the heating element, the lever — everything that makes it work.”

It’s one of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard of how my father saw things.

And he didn’t like sitting still, especially as a younger man. While other people were watching Sunday football or going to movies or taking vacations — all pretty pointless pursuits in my father’s eyes — he was working. He’d come home from his full-time job, eat the dinner my mother prepared, and go straight out into the field or the garage or the barn and stay there until long after the sun went down. All of our farm equipment had been modified with multiple lights — you could often find us plowing a field, planting seed, or harvesting crops well after everyone else was in bed.

That’s not to say he didn’t have fun once in a while. As a younger man, he was a bit of a speed demon. In England, where he met my mother, he rode a BSA Motorcycle and drove a jalopy he’d built on his Air Force base. Back in the states, he built and raced go-karts. He was a car enthusiast who rebuilt a 1928 Model A; owned his share of ‘50s Cadillacs, and once owned an MG purpose-built for racing.

He liked snowmobiling — our first was an antique AMC that he resurrected from a neighbor’s barn. In fact, he liked snowmobiling so much, he bought himself a vacation home in Upstate New York, land of the lake effect snow.

Of course, when I say he “bought a vacation home,” what I mean is, he bought land, cleared it, put in a well, a septic system, an electrical hookup, laid a pad, then bought a camper and “stored” it there permanently. (You see, my dad was also frugal – why the hell would you pay the taxes for a house when storing a camper is cheaper?)

As you might know, he was also a stubborn man, and he was never one to admit when he was wrong — or beaten. There was no arguing with my father — once he’d made his mind up, he did not change it. Sometimes I think that’s how he managed to get anything to grow at all during those lean years when the rains were few and the sun baked the rocks that served as soil on our stretch of the Blue Mountain.

That stubbornness was how he and my mother managed to face down a deep-pocketed developer who threatened to destroy not just their way of life, but that of anyone in Eldred Township and beyond. Incensed, he and my mother formed the Blue Mountain Preservation Association when a would-be race track owner made plans to deforest and degrade almost 500 acres of fields, woods and wetlands that border their home. After a 12-year fight, they won — and those peaceful acres are now permanently protected State Game Lands – free for anyone to enjoy, no motors required — or allowed.

That stubbornness is also how he faced his last months of life — at first refusing to even acknowledge the possibility that he was very ill, and then fighting like hell once he learned he might have a chance, no matter how slim.

He was a dedicated husband, father and Catholic, he lived a full life, and we will all miss him.

I’d like to thank you for coming here to celebrate the life of my father, Francis Z. O’Donnell, and for taking the time to mark his passing with us. And just so you know, somewhere right now he’s watching all of this and saying, “Hmph. Imagine that. They’re sitting around wasting time bullshittin’ about me when they should be gettin’ work done.”



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