They call him “Mr. Harvard.” A corporate tycoon and major donor who fondly remembers his days playing center for the Harvard football team, Joseph J. O’Donnell ’67 is continuing a long history of giving back to his alma mater by serving on the committee that will select Harvard’s next president.
Outside Harvard, O’Donnell is a prominent Boston businessman. He is the founder and former chairman of Boston Culinary Group, Inc., chairman of the board of Centerplate, Inc., and the owner of Allied Advertising Agency. He sits on the boards of several other organizations.
In college, O’Donnell was a star player on the football and baseball teams, earning six varsity letters and captaining the baseball squad as a senior.
Robert L. Flanagan ’67, one of O’Donnell’s classmates and football teammates, said O’Donnell thinks his Harvard education made possible his professional success.
“I think Joe really appreciated the opportunities that Harvard gave him,” he said. “He was a kid from a working class area and working class family and Harvard just gave him this wonderful opportunity that he really took advantage of.”
O’Donnell, whom Flanagan described as “loyal to the institution,” has donated extensively to Harvard. In 2012, he and his wife Katherine A. O’Donnell gave the University $30 million. He also endowed the baseball coach position in 1995, a position that is named after him.
Apart from Harvard, O’Donnell’s philanthropic efforts have centered on cystic fibrosis research. After O’Donnell’s 12-year-old son, Joey, died of the disease in 1986, O’Donnell and his wife founded the Joey Fund, a group dedicated to the discovery of a cure.
Throughout his involvement as an alumnus, O’Donnell has helped Harvard forge connections with the city of Boston.
“He knows everybody, and everybody loves him,” said Paul A. Buttenweiser ’60. “And he’s very well connected with virtually everybody in the city of Boston and Cambridge, in the state and nationwide.”
O’Donnell’s acquaintances include former U.S. President George W. Bush, who appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts in 2001.
Freshman dean Thomas A. Dingman ’67 said O’Donnell’s ability to create partnerships with Boston has helped the University.
“Joe has tremendous street smarts and I think he is able to make sure that the city of Boston and Harvard are fielding a partnership and looking after one another's interests,” he said. “I think he's been instrumental in that.”
According to Buttenweiser, one of O’Donnell’s notable traits is his charisma.
“I think he must know more people than anybody else I know. And more people say, ‘Oh yeah, Joe O’Donnell’s my closest friend,’” he said. “I don’t know who he says is his closest friend, but about a thousand people think that he’s their closest friend.”
Dingman agreed, describing O’Donnell as “one in a million” and “one of the most charismatic people I’ve met in my life.”
According to Dingman, O’Donnell could be looking for a University president who will value “issues of inclusivity and community” and who will make expansion into Allston a priority.
“He recognizes the constraints of developing on this side of the river and will want to know that the institution can be responsive to new areas of academic pursuit,” Dingman said, adding that does not necessarily mean that O’Donnell is “pushing a STEM agenda.”
Describing O’Donnell’s involvement in the University, Buttenweiser said he has made valuable contributions in many different areas.
“He’s sort of Mr. Harvard,” Buttenweiser said “He is a very leading member of the community in many ways.”
—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.