John Brophy O'Donnell Sr., 92, salesman and writer

September 13, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

John Brophy O'Donnell Sr., a retired office machine salesman and freelance writer whose fiction and nonfiction were published in magazines and Baltimore newspapers, died of pneumonia Friday at his Catonsville home. He was 92.

The son of a South Baltimore physician, Mr. O'Donnell was a city native. After the death of his father in 1918, caused by a heart ailment and overwork in the flu epidemic, he and his brother moved with their mother to Frostburg to live with her parents.

Mr. O'Donnell was a graduate of LaSalle High School in Cumberland, and during his teenage years worked in the Georges Creek Coal Co. and Piedmont Coal Co. mines that were owned by his grandfather, John S. Brophy, a prominent figure in Western Maryland's coal industry.

He attended Loyola College and earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from St. John's College in Annapolis in 1935. During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and was trained as a Japanese interpreter at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but did not go overseas because the war ended.

An ensign during the war, he remained active in the Naval Reserve and retired as a lieutenant commander in 1963.

"After World War II, he decided that Russian was the language he would need in the next war, so he learned Russian," said a son, John B. O'Donnell Jr. of Catonsville, a former Sun reporter and editor. "He became fluent in the language and read Russian books and periodicals until shortly before his death."

In his professional life, Mr. O'Donnell sold office machinery for Xerox Corp. and Addressograph-Multigraph Corp. until retiring in 1976. But writing was his lifelong avocation.

Mr. O'Donnell's prodigious output was published in Esquire and Seventeen magazines, as well as in The Sun, The Evening Sun, Sun Magazine and EXTRA, the News American's Sunday magazine.

"At one time, he was writing op-ed pieces on foreign affairs for The Sun and Evening Sun under the byline of Brophy O'Donnell while at the same time writing features for the News American under the pen name of John S. Brophy, his grandfather's name," his son said. "Editors of both newspapers knew he was doing this."

Mr. O'Donnell freely mixed serious topics -- such as Communist control in Portugal or problems with Soviet Jewish emigration in the early 1970s -- with the humorous, as when he wrote about lower cholesterol in eggs, Rogaine for baldness and increased postal rates.

When a letter that Mr. O'Donnell mailed took six days to go from Catonsville to Towson, he wrote in a profile of the Baltimore post office in Sun Magazine: "One of the mechanical marvels to speed the mails zipped [the letter] into the wrong slot, maybe for Los Angeles, and it crossed the continent twice before finding its destination in Towson."

In a 1988 piece in The Evening Sun about Rogaine, Mr. O'Donnell wrote that the hair restorer approved by the Food and Drug Administration might cause a "furry tongue" if mistakenly drunk and not applied to the user's pate.

He also pondered: "If Rogaine seeps through the skull and is absorbed into the brain, will it cause fuzzy thinking?"

In an interview with "Ms. Henny Penny," an environmental activist who retired to "Gizzard Land, the new henhouse for senior chickens in Chickasaw, Ala.," Mr. O'Donnell asked about low-cholesterol eggs and whiskey being watered down from 90 proof to 86.

"Yes, indeedy. The country started going to the bow-wows when the hair of the dog dropped. More bad things after that," Mr. O'Donnell wrote.

"Goosey Loosey Ford pardoned Foxy Loxy Nixon and we got Turkey Lurkey Carter. Turkey Lurkey told Playboy he lusted in his heart after strange chicks, and then things went from bad to worse and worst. We got Ducky Lucky Reagan and his Gander Lander," he wrote.

After being unable to purchase ribbons for his original computer's printer, Mr. O'Donnell was forced at the age of 89 to buy a new computer. He was still writing stories at 90 and had submitted two of them to a Tribune Co. fiction contest.

When he wasn't writing, he liked puttering around his Catonsville home of many years, reading and taking walks.

Mr. O'Donnell's wife of 66 years, the former Mary Catherine "Caukie" Nolan, died last year.

He was a communicant of St. Mark Roman Catholic Church in Catonsville, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday.

Also surviving are another son, James N. O'Donnell of Catonsville; a daughter, Sally J. Rooney of Drexel Hill, Pa.; nine grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Mary Ellen O'Donnell, died in 1950.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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