Listening to Donovan's stories means turning green with envy

March 16, 1997|By John Steadman

Gathering around Arthur Donovan on any day, not necessarily the one devoted to St. Patrick, the patron of the Irish, is an inevitable joy that may intoxicate a listener into a full jag of laughter. This is a troubador of fun, an entertainer who dispenses humor in abundance and a storyteller of such remarkable ability he should be submerged in a barrel of good wine and preserved for the ages.

The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick had him as their guest speaker yesterday at the Omni Hotel, and the stability of the building was tested by the uproar Donovan created. "I felt a little nervous," he said rather tentatively before the event, "because a lot of my peers were there and they know what an Irish bull------- I am."

For Donovan to be uncomfortable in the midst of an audience, be it talking on a telephone or before millions via television, is impossible to perceive. He made his reputation as an All-Pro tackle with the Baltimore Colts, the first from the team to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but his ability to humorously recount a personalized lode of experiences, along with an inimitable style of delivery, has brought an additional identity.

An inherent skill to communicate happiness was always there, a natural gift from the Irish gods, perhaps, and not something he developed for commercial purposes, although it has made him a personality who is in such demand he is forced to limit appearances on the national banquet circuit. The true love of the man is to be around people, and with his extroverted ways he exudes a disarming honesty that creates followers. A Pied Piper, of sorts.

He's proud, as the song reminds, of all the Irish blood that's in him. "My mother was so elated when I told her I won the spelling bee in fourth grade at St. Philip Neri in the Bronx," he said, "she went bragging to one of the nuns, Sister Joan Marie, about how smart her son, Arthur, was. But the sister told my mother the truth. I didn't win any spelling bee; I pulled a lucky number out of the hat. That's what won me the holy card."

Donovan enjoys relating experiences of growing up in a New York neighborhood with Germans, Italians, Jews and other immigrant families. "I was a part of Eddie McCarthy's army. He was a couple years older. Every Saturday, under Eddie, about 30 of us kids would march through the streets and on the playground. He carried a sword and shouted commands. The last anyone saw of Eddie was when he headed for Mexico to pan for gold."

He talks of the time Johnny Monacco relieved himself off the Ferris wheel while it was in motion at Coney Island and then couldn't understand why he was arrested. "It was a clear night, but suddenly it was raining.

"I'm telling you, we had some lineup of characters in our old neighborhood."

Did you ever walk in the St. Patrick's Day Parade? "Yes, when I was going to Mount St. Michael's High School and then, one year, when I was playing for the Colts, I marched with the New York City Fire Department. One of the chiefs was from the old neighborhood, a 'three horner' we called him because if he had one more 'horn' on his cap, he would have been head of the whole department. Now that's a big job in New York."

Donovan has visited Ireland on four occasions with his wife, Dottie, and was there once for a St. Patrick's Day celebration. "Over there, it's more like a holy day. They shut down the bars from noon until 3 o'clock. I guess it's a self-imposed penance. Late that night, I had trouble putting the key in the door, if you know what I mean. One time in Ireland I went to the castle and kissed the Blarney Stone. But I was an Irish bull------- long before that."

He talks fondly about his maternal grandmother, Margaret Mary O'Keefe Wall. "She really liked me. But my Uncle Denny, who drank a bit and lived in the cellar, near the coal bin, hated me for some reason. I believe he was jealous because my grandmother gave me attention. The only time Uncle Denny was ever nice to me was when he saw me serving as an altar boy at my grandmother's funeral. Then he patted me on the back.

"My grandmother had a pot of dough. No kidding. She owned a lot of properties. Her name was on the church bells at St. Philip Neri. She had a favorite cab driver named Billy McGrath, but we called him 'Billy Brooklyn'. He always ate a lot of celery. Grandmother liked to play cards, but one of my other uncles, Arthur McGuire, would never let her win. That bothered me. What the hell, he shoulda let her win a game or two, but he wouldn't do it. Too proud."

There was another relative, Aunt Lizzy O'Brien, who would always get out some holy water to bless the house when a thunderstorm came up. "Aunt Lizzy was a professional mourner," said Arthur. "She lived in Yonkers, went around to funerals and wakes and cried when she didn't even know who it was in the coffin. I'm telling you, the Irish are something special."

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