Citizen Services director honored

O'Donnell praised as caring professional

June 13, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Manus O'Donnell, director of Howard County's Citizen Services, is always easy to recognize in a crowd of gray-suited government employees.

Tall and mild-mannered, O'Donnell, 53, is rarely without a hat -- usually one of the straw variety.

After a bout with skin cancer a few years ago, O'Donnell owns an ever-expanding collection of hats that have become his trademark.

Then there are his startling Sinatra-blue eyes.

In fact, O'Donnell -- director of his burgeoning department for nearly 20 years, longer than any other current county agency head -- is often described as warm and sincere, a trustworthy man committed to expanding public services to county residents.

In his tenure as head of Citizen Services, O'Donnell has seen the department -- and Howard County -- grow by leaps and bounds.

His agency now manages services for all county residents, from child care to senior citizen care.

Citizen Services acts as an umbrella agency that oversees the Office on Consumer Affairs, the Office on Aging (which includes 11 senior centers throughout the county), Disabilities Services and Children's Services.

O'Donnell also works closely with county agencies dealing with transportation, human rights, homelessness, mental health, crisis services and family support.

He oversees a $10 million annual operating budget and manages a staff of 65 (and 40 volunteers).

O'Donnell attributes his successful career to "trying to do the best professional job for whoever I'm working for. I try to leave politics out of my job," he says. "I work for all of the county executives, Republican or Democrat; it's all the same. "I think that's a great approach for a public servant," he adds.

Many of his peers agree. Last month, O'Donnell was named winner of the 1999 Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Award, named for the former Howard County social services director who died in 1974.

Professional, personal care

Howard County Executive James N. Robey says O'Donnell received the award because of his "professionalism and the personal caring he displays in managing the delivery of services and working on issues."

"He has met many challenges over the years, and he and his staff have helped improve the quality of life" for county residents, Robey says.

O'Donnell acknowledges being flattered and humbled by the award, given annually by the Association of Community Services.

"It's a great honor to be selected by your peers," says O'Donnell, who lives in Ellicott City with his wife, Pamela, a Howard High School vice principal , and their four children. "I really try to work behind the scenes. I'm not the firebrand type; I just want to get the job done."

He adds, "I approach my job as a professional manager, not as a strong and vociferous advocate."

Susan Rosenbaum, Citizen Services deputy director, says O'Donnell is one of the county's most successful behind-the-scenes operators.

"Part of what he does best is to set things in motion," Rosenbaum says. "Because he has such a long history in the county, he knows which direction things should go in. He's seen the growth of human services in this county and he has a feel for what the community needs and wants. And he knows how to make that happen."

The diplomat

"Manus has been around so long, working in a difficult position" that "requires extreme diplomacy and savvy," says Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots, the county's emergency shelter and transitional housing program. Ingram nominated O'Donnell for the award.

"He's working within the county government as an advocate for human services and has to do it diplomatically. He's been sort of quietly doing that and we've come to take him for granted," Ingram says. People in the nonprofit community "really look to him for certain things."

Didn't feel call to service

Born and raised in Bryn Mawr, Pa., O'Donnell is the eldest of 12 children and the sixth boy in the family to be named Manus, reputed to be an ancient Irish king.

After graduating from a large Catholic boys high school, O'Donnell attended Villanova University for a year before joining the Army in 1966.

Korea turned out to be a pivotal experience for the young lieutenant.

"I was glad to be in a Third World country where I had an opportunity to see how other people lived," O'Donnell says. "It taught me an awful lot about America."

Though he developed respect for other cultures while in the Army, O'Donnell says he "didn't feel like I had any type of calling to help other people. I was taught to have a healthy respect for others, but I didn't think I'd be a public servant most of my life."

After a series of jobs in the 1970s -- tax accountant, real estate agent and junior college activities director -- O'Donnell was appointed in 1980 to his post by former County Executive Hugh Nichols.

Caught by Howard's growth

O'Donnell says Howard County's small human services agencies were unprepared for the rapid population spurt of the 1980s.

Crisis centers for the homeless, as well as victims of rape and domestic violence, were small and understaffed. Child care services for the working poor were practically nonexistent. And the county's senior population faced housing and activities shortages.

Expanding services

Under O'Donnell's guidance, Citizen Services commissioned the first homeless study in the county, added a 20-bed wing to Howard's homeless shelter and will soon initiate its first central tracking system for homeless people.

"As the community ages, we need to prepare for the growth of senior citizens," he says. "Baby boomers will become senior citizens in 10 years. They've driven an awful lot of the economy and the way society has responded to such a large, particular age group.

"Our challenge is to get ready for them."

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