No matter how many years I’ve been out of school – and don’t ask me how many that is – I still get a little nostalgic when back-to-school time rolls around each fall. This year I’ve been thinking a lot about a gifted history teacher I had back in high school.
Mr. O’Donnell was among those rare teachers who mesmerized us as he brought the characters of our dull history book to life right there in the classroom. He could recreate an historic scene better than anyone I’d ever seen before or since, and his performances were always brilliant.
Before becoming a teacher Down East, Mr. O’Donnell had knocked around New York and then Hollywood for a few years trying to break into show business. He finally landed a regular spot on a popular television cop show called “Highway Patrol” starring Broderick Crawford. Mr. O’Donnell appeared as the dispatcher in the station and always managed to have at least a few lines in almost every episode. For example, the camera, following Crawford through police station, would pan by Mr. O’Donnell’s dispatcher desk as he’d say, “Ten-four” or “Standby, all units!”
Despite such a successful acting career, Mr. O’Donnell eventually got sick of Hollywood, moved to Maine and got a job teaching American history at my high school. I was fortunate enough to be one of his students.
His course began with the Age of Discovery and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Mr. O’Donnell wouldn’t just reel off names and meaningless dates and then test us to see how many facts we were able to memorize. With his wonderful storytelling and obvious flair for the dramatic Mr. O’Donnell would bring us right into the Spanish court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. We’d see Columbus standing there before their Royal Majesties as he humbly explained why he needed their help in assembling a small fleet of ships. We would listen to his arguments; how, by sailing west the Great Navigator would discover a shorter route to the riches of the Far East!
When it was time for Maine history, Mr. O’Donnell would employ the same dramatics. There we’d be with the early settlers as they built their shelters at Popham or Ille de Mount Desert. Through his stories he’d take us to the banks of the mighty Kennebec where in 1607 settlers began building the “Virginia,” the first ocean-going vessel ever built in North America.
Mr. O’Donnell was truly an inspiration to me. Over the years, I’ve used him as a guide while trying to bring Maine’s stories alive. I’m about to begin my 23rd season with the “Stories in the Schools” program. With help from sponsors we are able to bring the many wonderful stories of Maine to students in elementary, middle and high schools.
Depending on the needs and goals of individual teachers we may tell stories about the early French and English explorers and settlers and the Native Americans who met them on these shores. We have stories about some of the great ships built here during the Age of Sail and stories about the legendary Down East skippers raised in places like Searsport and Thomaston who took these magnificent Maine-made vessels along with their stories and sailed to places like Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Shanghai and beyond.
I often wondered if – back in Ireland – the McDonalds and O’Donnells were related.
John McDonald entertains with his Maine stories at banquets, conferences and conventions throughout New England. He is also the author of several bestselling books, including “The Maine Dictionary,” “A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar” and “Maine Trivia.” Contact him at 899-1868 or firstname.lastname@example.org.