`Unflappable' O'Donnell ready to spread his wings

County's Citizens Services director is about to retire

Howard County

December 16, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After 28 years in Howard County government, Manus J. O'Donnell's reputation on the eve of his retirement is that of a quiet, calm, productive man who is devoted to helping people in need - but there's more under the surface.

There's his 1,500 cc Kawasaki V-twin engine motorcycle, and his attraction to Florida despite a brush with skin cancer and a family history of the disease. And years ago, his decision to become an officer in the Army after being drafted in 1967 - when second lieutenants had a high casualty rate in Vietnam (he ended up in Korea).

Sometimes "a little Irish imp comes out. There gets to be a twinkle in his eye. He just enjoys life," said Barbara Lawson, director of the Columbia Foundation for the past 14 years and one of O'Donnell's partners in helping people.

"I dare say a lot of people really don't understand the real Manus O'Donnell. It takes a while to understand what's really behind that shield," said Dorothy L. Moore, another career human services professional who heads the county's anti-poverty agency, the Community Action Council.

"I have a hidden side that people don't see," the Philadelphia-area native acknowledged. But his work developing a co- operative network of public and private social services while Howard County grew by leaps and bounds didn't leave much room to exhibit it.

"At work, I'm all business," he said, contemplating his second-floor office in the county's Gateway Building, which is jammed with stacks of papers, folders and records.

He has worked for five Howard County executives, overseen the doubling of beds for the homeless at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center and the construction of the county's network of 10 senior centers (his wedding reception took place at the first, Florence Bain Center in Columbia).

Early on, he supervised housing programs, too, and often spent several days a week helping local nonprofits straighten out their administrative and financial problems. People attracted to Columbia brought a great "vibrancy" to the county, he said.

O'Donnell is about to retire from his job as 23-year director of Citizen Services, Howard's human services agency. Including his military service, he qualifies for a 30-year government pension, so it makes sense to move on, he said, and he needs a new challenge, as well.

He is the eldest of 12 children and one in a line of seven O'Donnells named Manus (including his late father and his son). The military brought him to Baltimore, he said. He was stationed at old Fort Holabird, near Dundalk, and finished college at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

After selling real estate and working at Villa Julie College, he landed a job in Howard County government through a federal employment program in 1975.

Now he is looking for other administrative jobs in government, including a few in Maryland, he said. But the idea of regular winter golfing in Florida is enticing.

"When it snowed in February, I thought, `Oh, there's a lot of good reasons to go to Florida, too,' " he said. He has a stash of wide-brimmed hats to protect himself from the sun.

But over the years, O'Donnell's capable, efficient side is what most of the people with whom he works have seen.

"When I was first elected, I met with Chuck [former County Executive Charles I.] Ecker," Howard County Executive James N. Robey said. "He told me: `This is a guy we're so fortunate to have. He will take care of problems in the department and in the community before they hit your desk.' "

J. Hugh Nichols, the county executive who chose O'Donnell for his job in 1980, said he was picked "because of his experience, and he was already there. Everybody I asked about him gave him a very favorable [reference]. He did an excellent job."

Lawson said O'Donnell is "unflappable. He's straightforward, but doesn't let emotion rule."

She said that's how he has been able to strengthen the county's network of private, business and government agencies into such an effective team. And he is an effective advocate for the services behind the scenes, several people said.

"You can just depend on Manus. He'll say, `When do you need me?' " Lawson said. "In this community, we work in partnership and collaborate rather than staking out turf."

Moore said she has used O'Donnell to sound out ideas and proposals before putting them in writing. "I think he's a sensitive person," she said.

The job has meant years of meetings and bureaucratic problem-solving. But O'Donnell said the times closest to his heart are those when he got out from behind his desk and got personally involved.

During a snowstorm in the mid-1990s, when county government was all but shut down, he heard about a woman and four children stuck at a motel on U.S. 40 with no money, food or clean clothes. "I drove up to the motel, took the woman shopping and the next week worked with agencies" to help arrange job interviews for her, he said.

Another time, he intervened after hearing reports from several agencies - schools and a child abuse center - about what turned out to be the same family. He helped coordinate a response that placed one child in foster care, away from danger.

It is important, he said, "that we [Howard County] continue to have a small-town feel no matter how big we get."

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