WRITING, READING AND MAKING THE NEWS – Dan O’Donnell knows newspapers are indispensable, whether he is sharing his views in them or seeing what other people think or catching up on the news. – Photo by Jacob Carver
Danís Naval Career
By Jacob Carver While he got his start through the draft, Dan O’Donnell’s naval career became a defining point in his life. When he was drafted, he was majoring in history at the University of Washington. Because of this, he got a deferment, but still owed time to the armed services. He chose the Navy, but his job was a little bit of a surprise to him. While thinking he was in the line to sign papers to become an intelligence officer, he was actually in the aviator’s line. O’Donnell flew P2V and P3 patrol planes, primarily, throughout his 24 year career. He flew out of NAS Whidbey and NAF Adak, Alaska, and then was stationed at NAS Whidbey in January 1957. O’Donnell remembers NAS Whidbey fondly. His naval career came to a close with a job in Washington D.C. doing lab work. His last assignment was to help create maps using doppler radar.
He has alternately been a Port of Skagit manager, Town Councilmember, Mayor of La Conner, and Skagit County Treasurer. And a dishwasher and real estate agent. Plus a U.S. Navy captain. Now, just 16 months shy of his 90th birthday, Dan O’Donnell has embraced the role as La Conner’s man of letters. Refusing to make concessions to age, O’Donnell remains a frequent contributor to the La Conner Weekly News Letters to the Editor section, as he did previously with the Channel Town Press. O’Donnell, still a regular attendee at Town Council and School Board meetings, often feels compelled afterward to pen his views on and impressions of local issues, whether large or small. His analyses don’t always align with the current Town administration, but aren’t dismissed outright, either, given his prior lengthy service to La Conner. “Dan,” says three-term Mayor Ramon Hayes, “has served the Town as Mayor and a Councilmember. For that, the community should be grateful.” His most recent cause has been to push for reduction of the amount the Town pays for City of Anacortes water. A longtime number cruncher, O’Donnell insists the Town is being overcharged. O’Donnell’s epistles generally focus on matters of finance. Most are serious, but there are times he can’t resist use of his trademark Irish whimsy. There was the time, for instance, when he famously – or infamously, depending upon your perspective – suggested if each resident of La Conner simply ponied up $2.37 the Town could abstain from the Tulip Festival and its related traffic congestion. Some weren’t sure if he was kidding. During the 1980s and 1990s, when locals grappled with growth-related tensions, O’Donnell found himself smack dab in the middle, a realtor who empathized with those concerned about the impact further development would have on La Conner. It was Marc “Zappa” Daniel, a one-time mayoral candidate and proud card-carrying member of Lesser La Conner, who fondly dubbed O’Donnell as “a realtor and a human being.” O’Donnell thus drew the duty of trying to tamp down emotions on both sides, accepting speaking invitations from pro-growth and preservation groups alike. But being in real estate, part of the La Conner Realty & Investment team, was an opportunity O’Donnell couldn’t resist. “I absolutely loved working for Kirby Johnson,” he says. Reminiscing about those long distant days still brings chuckles to O’Donnell, who back then had already survived two years of verbal jousting at the Port with maverick Commissioner Roger Pederson. O’Donnell, it turns out, had been trained for combat. A native Kansan who grew up in Ballard and graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in history, O’Donnell taught school in West Seattle before fulfilling the military obligation he had deferred while in college. A son of the Great Plains, he opted for the Navy. His plan was to enlist in Naval Intelligence. Somehow, though, he ended up in the wrong line and was assigned instead to aviation. O’Donnell trained in Pensacola, Florida, where he began his long, steady climb up the chain of command. By 1957 he found himself back home in the Pacific Northwest, stationed at NAS-Whidbey. Thirty years later, following his retirement from the Navy – O’Donnell closed out his service career as a captain, engaged in Doppler mapping in Washington, D.C. – he returned to the Whidbey base as a La Conner Town Council representative seeking changes in flight patterns to help abate noise levels here. O’Donnell was invited aboard a Navy aircraft to scope out potential new training routes slightly east of La Conner. Upon landing he decided to grab a quick bite at the McDonald’s on base. As he entered, O’Donnell spotted a Washington State Patrol trooper and quickly recognized the man seated across the table chowing down on a Big Mac. It was then-Governor Booth Gardner, an avid distance runner. O’Donnell confidently sauntered up to the governor, made small talk, and poked fun at his jogger-unfriendly diet. No offense was taken and O’Donnell wasn’t chided for breaching security. O’Donnell’s foray into Town politics began with a successful Council race against his good friend Jim Smith, later an award-winning La Conner Weekly News columnist. Mary Lam, then Mayor of La Conner, had encouraged O’Donnell to file for election. “She convinced me I should run for Council,” he recalls, “and so I did.” His time in office – shared between stints on the Council, as Mayor, and in the Skagit County Treasurer’s Office – was marked by a number of landmark achievements. An early voice of concern about income inequality, O’Donnell was instrumental in garnering support for the Southfield affordable housing project in La Conner. He was among those who successfully lobbied the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spearhead stabilization of the La Conner waterfront, making possible the subsequent installation of its public boardwalk. “Here I was a Navy guy,” he laughs, “having to work with the Army Corps.” A quick round of name association elicits from O’Donnell mostly positive responses. Even the mention of Pederson draws a good-natured chortle. Other La Conner area notables upon whom O’Donnell reflects include John Stephens, Allan Olsen, Michael Hood, John Petrich and late Council members Tony Morefield and Don Wright. “What a guy,” he says of Morefield, who like O’Donnell never shied from controversy. Of Wright, O’Donnell says: “He spent over 30 years on the Council – my God!” Though himself no longer on the Council, O’Donnell is fully engaged. While others might nod off during a meeting, O’Donnell stays alert from gavel to gavel. He saves his napping for the morning cable TV news shows. He says, again with a wide smile, that he avoids fake news by relying solely on the La Conner Weekly News. That is specially true during those weeks when he’s a contributor. Yet O’Donnell believes his lasting contribution isn’t confined to the pages of a newspaper. “I’d like to think,” he says, “that I’ve helped get people thinking about things and staying abreast of the issues.”