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.”



On life, presence, the speed of childhood and the perils of rushing

Last night I had some rare one-on-one time with my oldest, who will be 9 in what seems like a heartbeat. 

As I tucked him in, he asked me to sing him a song – something he hasn’t asked for in a while. I was feeling frustrated, tired, irritable, and just wanted him to go to sleep, but then I took a moment to realize the importance of what he was asking. I don’t always do that, in many aspects of my day-to-day routine. I find myself too caught up in the rush of work, parenting, and navigating life, and I don’t take time to listen. 

So I asked him what he wanted. We settled on “Hey Jude,” and after that, he asked for the song I used to sing to him every night as a baby: “Moonshadow.” So I sang that, too, and tried not to let the lump in my throat get in the way. As I did, he relaxed, sighed, snuggled up to me, put a hand on me, and closed his eyes. When it was over, he opened his eyes again and asked me, “How old are you again, Dad?” “48,” I told him. He thought about that for a moment, and a troubled look passed over his face. “I don’t want you to get older, Daddy,” he said. “And I hope your voice never changes because I really like the way your voice sounds when you sing to me, and I don’t want that to change if you get older.”  
It was a bittersweet moment for me. It was a reminder that life passes quickly, and that we all get older, and that our children grow in an instant, and it left me with tears in my eyes. It was a reminder that if I don’t slow down and take notice of each moment, instead of racing from one to the next, I’m going to miss the most important things in my children’s – and my own – life. 

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” My son’s words last night illustrated that perfectly, and were a reminder that I need to be present for the journey instead of focusing on, and rushing toward, the destination. 

be present in the moment, and focus on the journey, not the destination
My oldest son at a time that simultaneously seems like an age ago, and also the space of a heartbeat.

Reflections on an interview with Maynard Ferguson

I was digging through my “archives” [i.e., a bunch of musty old newspapers in a cardboard box in my office) in search of something when I stumbled on this story from college.

Unfortunately, it focused more on Maynard Ferguson’s backstory and the concert than the interview I got to do with him beforehand – and that’s the part that left the biggest impression on me.

I was a nerdy, nervous college kid way who felt way out of my depth in the presence of a man who simply exuded greatness. But Ferguson put me at ease in minutes in the faded, decades-outdated space that passed for ESU’s backstage dressing room. He was humble, polite, funny, and very conversational.


He asked me if I played anything, and when I told him about my high school jazz band days on valve trombone he instantly treated me like we’d been friends for years; peers, even (hah!). We talked about that unmistakable seven-note bass line in “Birdland,” emptying spit valves, the buzzy feeling your lips get after playing for a long time, and the often-overlooked value of music education in schools.


As I reread the story tonight, I got goosebumps remembering that I bonded over brass with such a legend, and didn’t even realize the significance of it at the time. I do know that for quite awhile afterward, I dreamt of playing again, missing it with a deep ache.


One of the other things we talked about was his practice of meditation (he was just finishing up when I arrived to do the interview, and I had to wait outside. I think he even had some candles lit on the vanity table when I walked in). He told me how he’d learned to use yoga, long before it was “cool,” to help his breathing and how it helped him hit those high notes he was so well known for. Later, in concert, he literally blew us all away and made our ears ring for hours afterward. It was an experience I’ll never forget.


So, in tribute to Maynard, click on the link below for a hair-raising version of “Birdland.” If you want the true Ferguson experience, crank it up to 11 and put your ear next to the speaker when he solos (Note: this will cause deafness. If there truly are trumpets in heaven, I’m sure he’s leading the seven-angel band — the man could blow down walls with a single note.)  





#maynardferguson #jazz #birdland

Music for Earth Day

Earth Day, lichen, moss, environment


Earth Day, lichen, moss, environment
© 2016, Patrick F. O’Donnell

Did you know Earth Day was originally the brainchild of a former plastics industry guru? No? Neither did I.

That was in 1969, and the gentleman, John McConnell, had designed one of the first plastic plants years before on the West Coast. He was reportedly fascinated by science and nature, concerned for the environment, and worked on developing a plastic using walnut shells, as well as finding ways to reuse waste products.

McConnell’s Earth Day was March 21, the spring equinox. And although we now recognize the first official U.S. Earth Day, established by Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson on April 22, 1970, the U.N. and many countries around the world celebrate both days.

Earth Day sparked the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, as well as laws such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and more.

It’s frightening that after all the progress we’ve made in the years since, the current administration is hell-bent on gutting the rules and regulations that protect our earth in favor of protecting the pocketbooks of already rich businessmen and women.

There’s hope, though. Today’s March for Science proves that.

In honor of Earth Day and The March for Science, I put together a YouTube playlist of songs that revolve around science and the environment. Some might be obvious choices, others perhaps not, but all celebrate, mourn or caution us in some way.

Clicking on the first video below should start the playlist, and they should play through in order.



A few words about snowflakes

I was walking out of a restaurant recently when I overheard one of those “Make America Great Again” hat-wearing clods complaining loudly. He was ranting and raving about “liberal snowflakes” who “love gender-neutral bathrooms” and don’t realize that terrorists are, right this very minute, hiding in the midst of every group of ragtag refugees that’s seeking entry into this “once great land.”

Phew. Heady stuff, and it set off a mighty struggle between my rational and irrational sides. The rational side told me to keep walking and ignore Trump Hat. After all, I had my kids with me, and I didn’t want to expose them to what would surely turn into a useless shouting match with the human equivalent of a toilet bowl stain.

The irrational side, on the other hand, had some very different ideas. One of them involved being the initiator of that shouting match, as well as performing an action with his hat that I’m pretty sure would not only be anatomically impossible, but illegal in some Southern states.

Photo courtesy Charles Schmitt/Wikipedia

Rational, however, won the day and I walked on without comment, inwardly grumbling. Much later, though (isn’t that always the way?), I had one of those forehead-slapping moments where I thought of the perfect retort:

“Thank you for calling me a snowflake.”

Why? Because calling someone a “snowflake” is a compliment.

You see, snowflakes are created through adversity and diversity. Here’s how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains them:

“A snowflake begins to form when an extremely cold water droplet freezes onto a pollen or dust particle in the sky. This creates an ice crystal. As the ice crystal falls to the ground, water vapor freezes onto the primary crystal, building new crystals – the six arms of the snowflake.”

In other words, the water is just floating along, minding its own business, when it slams into some dirtball. That dirtball causes a powerful reaction that completely changes the water. Weighed down by this change, the now-frozen water starts to fall. As it drops, though, it meets up with other drops of water along the way. They lend structure and support, build new parts, and eventually form six sides.

When the snowflake finally lands, you’d never even know the dirtball existed, because the adversity and diversity have transformed that drop of water into something beautiful — and as our 1st-grade teachers drilled into our heads, no two are alike.

We’ve all bumped into our share of dirtballs on our journey: They’re the people who are racist and sexist; the people who believe might makes right; the people who think being gay is a choice or a sin. They’re the folks who use religion as a tool of self-righteousness and oppression; who use money to divide instead of unite; who live with closed minds and hearts.

And each time we’ve bumped into them, it’s changed us. And when our kids hear idiots like Trump Hat, it’s a teachable moment that can change them, too.

I choose to believe that we “snowflakes” will someday greatly outnumber the dirtballs — and that’s exactly what the dirtballs are afraid of. They’re afraid that we’ll be a united nation of individuals who have become stronger because of adversity and diversity.

And guess what? That’s exactly what the founding fathers had in mind.

So go ahead, call us “snowflakes.” Please.

In a vinyl frame of mind

On turntables, music and the hi-fi life

Last year I wrote a really fun column (Can Vinyl Get My Groove Back?) about a void in my life: the absence of a turntable.

Last night I finally took the plunge and bought one.

Yes, vinyl can get your groove back.

I didn’t opt for any of the hyper-expensive options I researched in my column, though — out of my budget and pointless, given my mid-line, older receiver/speaker setup.

Instead, I was kind to my wallet and bought a Sony PSLX300USB. That’s a fancy way to say it’s a simple stereo turntable that (if I were so inclined) can “rip” albums to a digital format. I can now play 33s and 45s, it sounds good and, bonus: I realized I kinda missed the hiss and crackle of those wax platters.

There was one thing I’d forgotten, though: How just the slightest bump will send the needle flying. There is some value to digital formats that can’t skip.

Despite that, I’m really excited about my turntable – I’ve missed the incredible, large-format album artwork, homey sound of vinyl and the warm fuzzies I get from putting the needle on the record.

Next stop: A record shop for some new-to-me hot wax.

Wag more, bark less …

I enjoyed writing this piece  for Inspire Health about Canine Companions for Independence. If you or anyone you know is interested  in becoming a volunteer puppy raiser, please get in touch with them. Keep in mind that you need enough time time to dedicate to a fairly rigorous training schedule – but you’ll be changing someone’s life.  Click “Canine Collaboration,” below the pic, to see the full article.