Manus J. O'Donnell, for 23 years the face of Howard County government's services for senior citizens and people in crisis, will retire by the end of next month, he announced to his employees yesterday.
"They gave him a standing ovation," said County Executive James N. Robey, who attended the departmental awards ceremony at the county's new Ellicott City Senior Center. "They're in shock. He's one I'm really going to miss and the community will miss."
O'Donnell, 57, director of the Department of Citizens Services, is known for his wide-brimmed hats and his calm, reasoned approach. He has worked for Howard County for 28 years. With credit for military service, he has 31 years toward a pension, and he would like to go to Florida to try something new, he said.
"I've been doing this same job for 23 years," he said, and the chance to take his pension and work in a warmer climate is too appealing to put off. He said he does not have a new job, but he is a finalist for several positions and decided to spend at least part of the winter in Florida.
In his resignation letter to Robey, O'Donnell mentioned the progress made under five county executives, such as building 10 senior centers, developing partnerships between private and public organizations, doubling the size of the homeless shelter that is operated by Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center and establishing citizen boards to deal with issues such as disabilities, children's services, the Women's Commission and the Mental Health Authority.
A Philadelphia native, O'Donnell attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and started working for Howard County in 1975 under the federal jobs program called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration. He has held his current position since 1980.
"We'll lose an incredible institutional memory of all the social issues and how they've been addressed," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat who served on the County Council and as county executive during the 1970s and 1980s.
Bobo credited O'Donnell with helping to create an effective partnership between the private nonprofit groups that sprung from Columbia's progressive outlook and government and business groups.
"He was the architect of the system," said Richard M. Krieg, president and chief executive officer of Horizon Foundation.
Roy Appletree, executive director of the private Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, one of those nonprofit groups, said: "Manus always focused on delivery of final service. He nurtured the private sector" rather than try to build an administrative empire.
At the same time, county budget director Raymond S. Wacks - the county's longest-serving administrator - pointed out that O'Donnell "brought a business sense to human services" that helped make programs to help people work more effectively.
Susan Rosenbaum, the Department of Citizens Services' deputy and a 27-year county employee, will be acting director once O'Donnell leaves, Robey said.
Rosenbaum also noted O'Donnell's "quiet way of working behind the scenes on consensus building and community building."